A storm has been brewing in South Africa since 1994
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The Rainbow Nation is well past its expiry date. Recent weeks have seen lightning bolts of protest and storms of smash-and-grab take the shine right out of the Rainbow.
This political turbulence was inevitable. A storm has been brewing since 1994 when the very first winds of reconciliation-without-justice blew in empty puffs of fake hope for black South Africans.
Promises of a better life for black people, once the proud rally cry of the ANC, is no longer part of the governing party’s vocabulary. The material conditions of ordinary black South Africans remain dire. Each new dawn is a dark day.
In my recently published book No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa, I write how in current day South Africa, white supremacy is sovereign, while black liberation remains in waiting.
For most white South Africans, the Rainbow Nation has brought no turbulence. White people have held onto their privilege and power, without accounting for the grave atrocities and inhumane crimes committed against black South Africans under apartheid and colonialism, or for the ruthless and wholesale looting of land, economy, and resources.
Nat King Cole sang lyrically that “at the end of a rainbow, you’ll find a pot of gold.” But for the majority of black South Africans, the pot has been empty. The Rainbow Nation has brought little release from their daily battle with structural exclusion, inequality, and poverty. This is the morbidity of the post-1994 era in South Africa.
In an article which appeared in The Washington Post a few days ago, Ishaan Tharoor writes how South Africa’s “rainbow nation” is now the “global poster child of economic inequality, where deep poverty sits in the shadow of astronomical wealth”. He is correct.
Today, South Africa is the most unequal place in the world. The tragedy is that the ANC has crystalised black poverty and white wealth as if these are natural phenomena rather than the monstrous hand craft of apartheid and colonialism. In reflecting on the recent unrest in South Africa, Tharoor writes that this is what happens when the “gross inequality that shapes a whole society boils over”.
If the story is told accurately, I believe that our history books will describe July in South Africa as a “perfect storm” created by a “powerful concurrence of factors” – desperation, despair, hopelessness, rage, and outrage.
Hopelessness has finally trumped hope. The social distancing between the ANC government and the poorest and most vulnerable in society appears to have reached pandemic proportions. The criminal act of “looting” Covid-19 related funds by politically connected individuals, the 2012 Marikana Massacre and the Life Esidimeni “health Holocaust” are just three examples of a government who has forsaken its citizens. It should not surprise us then that protests have increasingly become an official language in South Africa.
In a thought piece written by the Institute for Security Studies’ Lizette Lancaster and Godfrey Mulaudzi, in August 2020, the authors argue that the increase in protest action is a sign of growing resentment to an unresponsive government. They write about how protests are an expression of frustration and disgust at a “political elite believed to be out of touch with the plight of ordinary people.”
In a lecture commemorating Nelson Mandela this week, Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said “Mandela was concerned about the poor condition of the lives of the people he led, their daily struggles, their fears and aspirations. He was not an armchair leader but always led from the front.”
Sisulu said Mandela was “not an aloof leader leading from the comfort of his office. Instead, he mingled with communities and addressed angry communities during times of heightened violence. When the apartheid state unleashed the Boipatong massacre, he did not sit back but went to the Vaal to bring solace and leadership to distraught communities. When the country erupted into violence following the killing of Chris Hani, he put himself forward, giving leadership and direction.”
During this commemoration, Minister Lindiwe Sisulu posed the following question. “Are we bold enough to lead in the front and are we committed to the course of bettering the lives of the poor?”
It is a pivotal question especially now when South Africa’s democracy is a winter of discontent. Sisulu poses this question at a time when the ruling party appears more invested in factional politicking than in the well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.
The bitter hatred for former President Jacob Zuma among some of the current ANC leadership appears stronger than their genuine love for the nation and its people.
It is time for the ANC to put the interest of ordinary South Africans first and foremost. The genuine cries from poor, jobless, landless, and hungry citizens must be heard. It is long overdue for the ANC to deal with the violence of structural racism, the violence of economic exclusion, the violence of poverty, the violence of white power and privilege, and the violence of despair.
No grandiose tales of grand insurrection, even if it is spread with volcanic fervour, can mask the fact that the unrest we are seeing in South Africa today is about a nation and a people who have lost faith in their government. Brute, cover ups and censure will not work. The ANC must introspect and act with compassion and humility.
The legendary American civil rights leader, Dr Martin Luther King, said: “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
* Heller is a writer and political analyst.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.