The South African polis has become a veritable minefield. Venturing an opinion has become difficult. One’s legitimacy is under constant challenge, no matter which camp of the political and social spectrum one resides in. No longer are debates held in a manner where mutual respect, acknowledgement of each other’s perspectives, and intelligent, evidence-based, ethics-based or morality-based arguments are tendered. The decorum that the political elite once clung to – some would legitimately say, obsequiously – has all but been flung out of the window. The gloves have come off and been cast aside, seemingly for good; or at least until something breaks and a transition of some kind follows in its wake.
When one takes stock of the multiple dimensions along which crises are unfolding in South Africa, it is difficult to avoid coming to the conclusion that the conditions for ‘polycrisis’ are present, and that this may lead to instability, and possibly, collapse of one kind or another. What is certain is that South Africa sits at a tipping point. The politics of disruption has quickly entrenched itself within the South African polis. Yet to focus purely on the disruptions themselves is to miss what is driving them. The causes of discontent are easily obscured by the noise that accompanies the disruptions, as well as the speed and frequency with which they occur in the era of hypermedia.
It can be likened to focusing on the activities of an internet troll; the sheer obscurity and outrageousness of a troll’s behaviour – their offensive rants, and gaslighting and pivots when challenged – make it difficult to identify the roots of their behaviour. Indeed, this era is characterised by the paradox of radicalism without clear roots i.e. radicalism for its own sake, for the attention it garners, or as an identity marker, but to dismiss what is transpiring in South Africa today as simply a product of the global trend towards this kind of rootless radicalism is too simple and cursory an explanation. There are clear roots to the troubles that South Africa is currently undergoing, and they are historical in nature.
Before discussing these roots, however, it is important to outline the key issues around which South Africans have become polarized.
South African organizations have largely failed to adequately transform over the past 22 years. While the state itself has transformed, is demographically and gender transformed to a high degree (and generally well-qualified), private sector organizations, academia and institutions of higher learning, as well as others (e.g. some civil society spaces) have failed dismally in their transformation efforts. Historically white private sector organizations and institutions have remained white, with whites occupying senior positions in great majority. A recent 2017 report by the Employment Equity Commission found that in top management "68.5% of positions are occupied by white South Africans, 14.4% by black South Africans, 8.9% by Indian South Africans, and 4.9% by coloured South Africans. Foreign nationals make up 3.4%". Historically white universities and institutions of higher learning have also failed in their transformation efforts.
The most tangible or explicit result of the failure of transformation is that economic growth has not been inclusive. Instead, South Africa – according to the World Bank – exhibits the highest economic inequality in the world. South African cities exhibit even greater economic inequality (as indicated by their Gini coefficients). Moreover, this inequality is not only economic. It is multi-dimensional. Post-Apartheid democratic South Africa is characterized by deep, historical material, social, spatial and economic inequalities. It has not sufficiently overcome its past, instead it has reproduced the very inequalities that many previously disadvantaged and exploited peoples in South Africa expected would be alleviated and reversed under democracy. Many black and brown South Africans who experienced severe exclusion, dispossession and exploitation under Apartheid now feel as though their exploitation is inter-generationally passed on; their children are as unlikely to escape poverty, unemployment, lack of mobility, inadequate access to services and so forth as they were.
The other, less tangible result of the failures of transformation is that cosmetic change has served as an obstacle to genuine actualization of diversity, which in turn has fostered resentment and frustration among black and brown South Africans. Where black professionals and the like have entered traditionally white institutions they often feel patronized, overlooked, regarded as ‘token appointments’ and subject to subtle – yet powerful – forms of institutionalized racism. This affects how they experience their sense of belonging to these organizations as well as their prospects for advancement within them.
Economic mobility has not resulted in adequate social mobility, and the networks that operate behind the scenes – and where great institutional power resides – remain exclusive ‘old boys clubs’ that regulate access to opportunities for growth and advancement in very much the same manner as they did historically. Class and race exclusion overlap strongly in South Africa, but race always trumps class; professional, middle class black and brown South Africans feel that they are not regarded as equals amongst their white peers. They are paid less, expected to work more to gain the same status, and are unfairly subjected to unwarranted skepticism, subtle prejudice, and are often racially caricatured rather than accepted as individuals.
It is difficult to argue with the statistics and evidence that illustrate the overwhelming failure of transformation, yet this does not prevent conservative and right wing groups such as Afriforum from denying the privileged status they enjoy in South Africa, and for laying the blame for lack of upward mobility of black and brown people at their own doorsteps. Thinly veiled arguments are made that insinuate that black people are lazy, entitled and merely jealous of the “haves”. In a recent television interview, Ernst Roets of Afriforum – without any sense of irony – strongly denied the existence of white privilege in post-Apartheid South Africa, while at the same time arguing that white people were more likely to be better qualified and therefore legitimately enjoyed disproportionate representation in organizations. This is a consummate demonstration of precisely how systemic racism and race bias is reproduced in post-Apartheid South Africa.
To add insult to injury, the conditions under which many black and brown South Africans live – especially the working classes and the poor – are characterized by; (1) high levels of unemployment, (2) poverty, (3) precarious household budgets, (4) high unemployment (especially severe among the youth), (5) poor state education systems, (6) high levels of crime and violent crime in particular, (7) gender violence and discrimination, (8) high levels of violence and abuse of children, (9) the slow pace of land reform, (10) land tenure insecurity, as well as (11) ridiculously large housing backlogs (current backlogs alone will take about 40 years to meet under current social housing delivery rates in most major cities). This list of factors is merely illustrative; an endless list of social ills that characterize the everyday experience of most South Africans, not all of which can be adequately accounted for here.
Early post-1994 efforts towards reconciliation and cosmetic change ultimately stifled public expression, debate and engagement over key issues and matters that were critical for long term nation-building. For white South Africans reconciliation and cosmetic change meant that they did not have to do any serious introspection about how they inhabited a society historically governed by stark and brutal racial prejudice. The system was evil and they were not. While this is true, in that most white South Africans are not inherently evil or racially prejudiced in the sense of exhibiting overt hatred towards black and brown people, the realities of the historical advantages they enjoyed, the privilege and power they are automatically awarded by virtue of the colour of their skin, and how the system and institutions of racism manifest in micro-interactions in everyday life, essentially went unchallenged, unarticulated and consequently, unaddressed. This has ultimately worked against social cohesion and national unity.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s young black professionals who sought to bring these dynamics into the open, to air them so that they could be discussed and resolved in service of transformation efforts, found themselves quickly ostracized and/or marginalized. They were accused – sometimes openly, but more often than not in behind the scenes conversations – of ‘rocking the boat’ or seeking to destabilize organizations. Those who kept their heads down and didn’t ‘rock the boat’ got ahead, because they played along with the farce without challenging the – often predominantly white – senior managers and leaders of organizations.
Back then there were very many black and brown people who were equally uncomfortable with raising issues that may be regarded as contentious or difficult to deal with. Such is the South African condition inherited from Apartheid; people are generally afraid of confrontation and uncomfortable disagreements and discussions, so they try to find consensus too quickly. They become uneasy when difficult questions are posed. This is especially the case with white South Africans; their guilt overwhelms most conversations about race, and they are so entirely unaware of their primacy and centrality in these interactions – due precisely to inherited privilege – that they blunder into them seeking to shut them down too soon, or to gain quick and premature false agreement that temporarily keeps the peace but leaves the issue festering in the background of affairs, waiting for another day.
White guilt has proven to be a massive obstacle to reconciliation in real terms. That curious phenomenon; one that I’ve come to regard as ‘feeling guilty about not feeling guilty’ has stood as an unmovable bulwark against transformation; one that absorbs and halts all attempts at open and honest exchange around inherited privilege, systemic racism, exclusion and how South Africa’s history has translated into the new democratic dispensation. In its most ignorant manifestation it attempts to cast current day South Africa as emanating from a post-1994 tabula rasa; as though the slate was wiped clean of its history and the nation was made anew purely by obtaining the vote and political power. White guilt is both superficial and powerful at the same time; it skirts around the depths, refusing to enter into it, yet at the same time it fortifies and entrenches privilege amidst a sea of poverty, precarity and exclusion. It is, in that sense, a purely self-serving phenomenon.
Fast-forward to today and all the frustrations and tensions that were rendered latent in the post 1994 and early 2000s have mounted, accumulated and compounded into a wave of discontent that has taken the nation by storm. Issues that were resident in the background of affairs have now moved into the foreground, occupying disproportionate attention in the minds of many. Yet to the marginal majority, for whom a history of dispossession, exploitation, deliberate exclusion, overt and covert racism has fed their suffering for generations, it isn’t that surprising that the core issues that govern South African society have risen up and taken centre stage.
In this environment, misinformation, fake news, incendiary and polarizing rhetoric, hate speech and intimidation are at an all-time high in South Africa, mirroring the global trend that has brought about the rise of the alt-right, Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and electoral instability in many parts of the world. In very many cases these narratives are artificially amplified and differences that reside in a society are stoked by foreign-based information warfare styled ‘public relations’ firms such as Bell Pottinger and Cambridge Analytica, as well as foreign intelligence agencies and mercenary hacker groups. The goal is to create ‘chaos within the ranks’ so to speak, so that their political and economic decision-making processes can be manipulated. As a new global order is being contested new scrambles for power, markets and resources are unfolding at the same time.
Yet while some of these influences have no doubt had a significant impact on South African politics, most tellingly the activities that Bell-Pottinger undertook in service of the notorious Gupta family and the embattled ex-president of the republic Jacob Zuma and his family, the fissures that were exploited have been resident in South African society for a long time. It was easy to bring these fissures to the surface, as after many years of frustration at lack of material transformation and change – compounded by lack of service delivery and responsible government – black and brown South Africans in particular have grown deeply frustrated at their unchanging plight.
It is important to probe further into why such polarizing and divisive politics and political trends have manifested so quickly – and seemingly without warning – in South African society. There is a streak that runs through the various contestations that have arisen, and the politics that have accompanied them in the socio-political realm. Whether these contestations revolve around the settlement that was brokered in the transition to democracy, the policies of the post-Apartheid democratic government, the deep inequities and inequalities that persist in South African society, poverty and lack of service delivery, the failures of transformation efforts in post-Apartheid South Africa, or frustration at cosmetic change, and so forth, the seed is intimately linked to what is breaking in South Africa today; and that is quite simply the pact over which reconciliation was brokered. Simply put, South Africa’s reconciliation is coming undone and is under intense scrutiny. This is itself informed by a strong sense that historical justice has been sacrificed for political expediency and the security of black and white elites at a great cost to those who suffered under the Apartheid and colonial systems. As one young female activist recently put it on a television news show,
“Without justice there can be no reconciliation.”
The land issue, for example, is essentially about historical justice; and it is perhaps the most visibly so. Yet it is this pressing need for historical justice that runs through the core of the disgruntlements that have pervaded the socio-political realm. Pretty much every issue that has arisen and polarized the South African political spectrum revolves around the need for historical justice. Whether it is about more material developmental issues such as the land, housing, spatial inclusion, service delivery, healthcare, education and poverty – or more political issues such as the legacy of Nelson Mandela, the need for transformation, and the need to establish new institutions that govern society and the social contract upon which it rests – it is inescapable that the need for historical justice underlies and underwrites these conversations. It is ever present in the sub-text, and one does not even need to listen carefully to discern so; it is inescapably present.
Other issues such as – the plight of Jacob Zuma, the plight of traditional leaders, the EFF’s agenda, the legitimacy of the BFLF’s tactics, or Cyril Ramaphosa’s leadership, ‘white monopoly capital’, the push for decolonization of societal institutions, and others – are framed in terms of the inadequacy of reconciliation and the need for more to be done to ensure historical justice. And further contestation is unfolding around whose perspective on historical justice is most legitimate, or more precisely; whose perspective on what justice constitutes is most legitimate. Whatever the issue of contention it is voiced mainly in relation to the question of whether it is just or not. And for the most part, the question of whether an issue is just or not is framed, almost exclusively, in terms of its historical roots.
And as it is with history, it can be rewritten to suit the needs of anyone who exists in the present. So it is no surprise that unscrupulous and power-mongering leaders have selectively and often dishonestly exploited these issues and tritely constructed partial perspectives that serve to further their own agendas. And so the issues that are central to the polarization of South African society today have come to be heavily manipulated to serve whoever’s agenda it suits. The narratives that have been constructed around the most hotly disputed and polarizing issues in South African society selectively deploy ‘facts’ and ‘evidence’ as mere props, using them selectively to construct an argument in favour of, or against. Evidence is presented without any sense of rigour, attempt at objectivity, recognition of subjectivity, or any sense of balanced analysis as it is commonly understood. Partial perspectives have come to dominate the debate around what constitutes justice.
Moreover, the matter of who counts more – or rather, who has counted more – in the transition to democracy has opened up a public debate that has logically led to vociferous contestation over the question of who should count more. That is; who has legitimacy in the debate over justice and restitution. Over the past five years or so this has increasingly been linked to the question of who belongs in South Africa. That is; a thinly veiled discourse is unfolding, one that masquerades as black consciousness, but in fact argues for a programme of indigenisation and nationalisation. The Economic Freedom Fighters, and to a lesser extent Black First Land First, have been at the forefront of these political movements. At their core, their politics and the message that appeals to their base(s) revolves around questions of historical justice and restitution; in particular, that historical justice and restitution has not been achieved in post-Apartheid democracy and that more radical action is required achieve it.
The ruling party, the African National Congress, has also taken up the call for historical justice and restitution, drawing it into the centre of political power in South Africa. This has legitimized the matter significantly and the public debate around these issues now attracts a broad range of actors and participants. Effectively, questions of historical justice and restitution have now been mainstreamed, and it is highly unlikely that these questions can be taken off the table, or moved to the background now or in the foreseeable future. It is no exaggeration to state that these are the issues upon which the future of politics in South Africa rests. The question is how they will be handled, and what will come of them.
Will the process of resolving historical justice and restitution be accompanied by a thoughtful process of national reflection, healthy debate and consensus building over what future to actualize in the wake of our past - or will it be a programme that is characterized by even deeper division, intimidation and fear mongering? Will it result in inclusive economic growth and prosperity, or will it merely provoke an avalanche of internal and external divestment and economic recession? It is impossible to tell what route it will ultimately take, but what can be said with a good measure of confidence is that the current socio-political climate in South Africa augers no good. It will take very skilled leadership to turn this ship around and set it on a course towards a more just and socio-economically healthy destination. South Africa, after all, is a very young democracy, and twenty two years into it, it is wobbling disturbingly. It will require deep consideration of the issues that are holding it back, and bold but patient and transparent leadership and engagement to steer it back onto a positive trajectory.