Violence in South Africa fueled great inequality. It is a warning to all of us | Kenan Malik

“It feels qualitatively different this time.” There are few people I know in South Africa who do not think so about the bloodbath that is now ravaging the nation. Violence was institutionalized during the apartheid years. In the years after apartheid it was seldom far from the surface – police violence, gangster violence, protest violence. However, it is now being exposed how far the social contract that has held the nation together since the end of apartheid has been eroded.

Many aspects of the disorder are peculiar to South Africa. There are also topics with a broader response. The events in the country demonstrate in a special way a phenomenon that we experience worldwide in different ways and with different degrees of severity: the collapse of the old order, which only sectarian movements or identity politics fill.

The direct cause of the acts of violence was the 15-month prison sentence imposed on former President Jacob Zuma for refusing to testify during a corruption investigation. However, the protests in Zuma’s stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal have grown into something bigger and more threatening. A combination of people desperate from poverty and hunger, gangsters looking to profit from chaos, and political activists paying the bills has raged the country unprecedented. Corruption may have ensnared Zuma, but it’s not limited to Zuma. In a country where politics is determined by state patronage, corruption is a central feature. It has enabled a tiny black middle class to join the ranks of the already wealthy whites. And together with a social and economic policy that primarily benefits the wealthy, it has also helped create the most unequal society in the world.

Black lives are often less important, but some black lives seem less important than others

More than half of the population lives in poverty, a quarter in extreme poverty. Unemployment is over 32%. Three out of four young people are unemployed.

All of this has been compounded by Covid, devastating lockdowns, and government incompetence. Last year, almost two-thirds of households had run out of money to buy groceries in the previous month, and almost one in five suffered from weekly hunger. And that was before the government stopped Covid aid payments, which will make the desperation even more unbearable.

And then there is police violence. In 2019/20 there were 629 deaths by police and 216 cases of alleged torture. The South African police seem to kill more than twice as many people as their American counterparts. Yet while the police killing of African Americans has rightly attracted global attention, the far more cruel police violence in South Africa has attracted much less interest – even within the country. Black lives are often less important, but some black lives seem less important than others.

For the black population of South Africa, hopelessness and anger arise from the feeling that everything has changed and yet so little. Apartheid is gone. Blacks have the vote. For many, however, the country has barely made material progress. Apartheid had an immensely dehumanizing impact on communities, but it helped forge social bonds and channel anger into the liberation movement. The dehumanizing effects of post-apartheid politics only served to undermine the social fabric.

Since failure to tackle poverty has eroded support for the ANC, it has responded by falling more in love with the politics of division, leading people to direct their anger at one another. There have been waves of violence directed against migrant workers, much of it being fueled by politicians. Many have also taken advantage of the divisions between the apartheid-defined categories of people such as “black”, “colored” and “Indian”.

The black population is the main victim of inequality: 64% of blacks live in poverty, compared with just 1% of whites. Nonetheless, inequality is not a matter of race, but of class: the main divisions now lie within the black population. As the World Bank’s Inequality Report puts it, “the increasing inequality within the black and Asian / Indian populations” has “prevented any decline in total inequality”. In a political process built on sectarianism and racial and ethnic divisions, this is a narrative few politicians want to follow.

Even radical movements that claim to speak for the masses, like the Economic Freedom Fighters, still view the issue as a racial conflict between blacks and whites. In response to the violence, local organizations have emerged to help clean up the chaos, distribute food and medicine, and protect the community. Optimists see this as a spark for a new kind of politics. Pessimists fear that they will be overwhelmed by the same sectarianism that shapes so much of politics.

What is happening in the country is a tragedy for the people of South Africa. It’s a warning to the rest of us too.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist

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