The intensification of economic insecurity could endanger South Africa’s social cohesion
A brutal pandemic, anemic growth, massive job losses and an increasingly strict state have created a feeling of constant fear among millions of South Africans.
When it struck, the country was ill-prepared to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Poor service provision, weak supervisory authorities and an exhausted treasury ensured that the state’s social capital was at an all-time low. Statements made before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into the state arrest indicate that for some rulers the idea of a better life for everyone in the run-up to the first lockdowns was the least of their concerns. Against this backdrop of economic desperation and a growing sense of declining political freedom, it should come as no surprise that citizens react outside of traditional channels to get their voices heard.
In 2019, when GDP growth almost came to a standstill, South Africa saw the most protests, riots and mob attacks. According to Armed Conflict and Site Incidents Data (ACLED), the country had a national record of 1,544 incidents of social unrest in the 21st century. The majority were 841 peaceful protests; There was 644 riots and the rest were a handful of mob attacks.
The global migration from physical to digital can accelerate this growth in public discontent. Spurred on by increased internet penetration, more viral social media and the consolidation of grassroots activism and networks, the nature of social mobilization is changing rapidly. If political institutions cease to respond to economic ills in the years to come, they run the risk of upset the balance between democratic protest and instability.
The 2019 South African Barometer of Reconciliation (SARB), a nationally representative public opinion poll by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), uncovered sobering truths. They showed that the same year that the civil lawsuit peaked, South Africans felt profoundly unsafe economically.
The SARB found that in 2019, 59% of South Africans believed that their economic situation would either stay the same or worsen in the two years thereafter. At the same time, almost three in four (72%) of South Africans associate present-day poverty with historical disadvantages under the apartheid regime.
This downbeat assessment is likely based on considering persistent structural barriers that disadvantage historically marginalized groups.
Large segments of the population believe that they need access to the right financial resources, people, places, and education to achieve their goals. Broken down by race category, South Africans of color felt the most structurally restricted in their access to finance (46%), the right places (41%), the right people (40%), and the right education (29%). The effects of historical discrimination live on, especially among the large proportion of the poor who attribute their circumstances to structural rather than individualistic causes.
Behind a nation that feels economically insecure is a host of government failures that extend to policy making, policy implementation, corruption and unsuccessful partnerships with unions and the private sector. Although the country has made important development gains, the spoils of economic growth have yet to “trickle down” on those most in need.
The uneven dispersion of growth in the early 21st century increased inequality as revenues were concentrated and largely exclusive. In retrospect, it can be said that the Mbeki government’s surplus revenue was not used sufficiently by his and subsequent administrations to create more freedom of choice among the citizens.
Even more worrying was the apparent inconsistency with which our government pursued the human development goal – from the Reconstruction and Development Program to the Plan for Growth, Jobs and Redistribution to the Accelerated and Shared Growth Initiative in South Africa, the New Growth Path and the National Development plan. Politics fell victim to the faction instability of the ruling party. This inconsistency was exacerbated by the lack of a unified vision for the state, unions and the private sector. In this respect, there may be a closer connection between the lack of cohesion between the citizens and that between the political elites than they would like to admit. Zero-sum games may have produced zero-sum results.
As we strive to contain the impact of the pandemic on our society, it will become increasingly important to make building trust a priority over the next few months. In this regard, there has been a positive development. Private Public Partnerships (PPPs) are gaining momentum as the leading strategy for strengthening and aligning private and public interests. These partnerships are increasingly being used as a means of recovery and growth in a post-Covid South Africa. To do this, stakeholders need to learn from the mistakes of previous PPP attempts. Much of these mistakes can be traced back to the lack of systems of trust, transparency and accountability. Addressing these challenges requires improved oversight, the creation of a shared vision for the country that creates close relationships and coherent policy choices, and increased concern about the dispersion of economic growth rather than advocating growth as an end in itself.