WANDILE M NGCAWENI: Social unrest signals a steep decline in social cohesion


Indlulamithi is a multi-stakeholder, research driven initiative seeking to reinvigorate our search for ways to create a society where all people experience a sense of belonging and solidarity. On 15 July it announced the results from its 2020/21 National and Provincial barometers, which were tracking key trends and events to determine which Indlulamithi scenario South Africa is moving towards.

The three scenarios, possible futures for South Africa, presented were:

  • Isbhujwa: an enclave bourgeois nation. A future South Africa torn by deepening social divides, daily protests, and cynical self-interest;

  • Nayi le Walk: a nation in step with itself. A South Africa where growing social cohesion, economic expansion and a renewed spirit of constitutionalism gets South Africa going; and

  • iGwara Gwara: a floundering false dawn. South Africa a land of disorder and decay.

Of interest to me in this moment in South Africa is the Gwara Gwara scenario because its key features forecast a future where social cohesion is in steep decline, with continuous internal ANC battles, a gender civil war, trust/governance capacity declines, ethnic and intergenerational conflicts as well as record high unemployment rates.

This was the worst foreseen possible future, but one which seemed far-fetched, especially in the backdrop of a ‘New Dawn’ of the sixth administration promising economic transformation and job creation, building a capable, ethical, and developmental state as well as social cohesion and safe communities, among other priorities.

Coronavirus notwithstanding, there’s consensus in South Africa that there are still outstanding questions about socio-economic rights. Genuine redress continues to elude black people as we are still caught up in the structural constraints of inequality.

We must be accurate as research has shown, unrest, the ruptures we keep seeing, are against socio-economic difficulties underscored by the gravity of impoverishment by a majority black population.

The ‘New Dawn’ has not made meaningful change to people’s lives. By meaningful I mean lifting the black and poor from a suffocating socio-economic trap. Instead, perceptions that only the politically connected have opportunities to create a better life for themselves and relatives through corruption and looting public resources have solidified.

The recent events following the Constitutional Court judgment to imprison former President Jacob Zuma to 15 months for contempt of court have instigated this current rapture.

Whether the #FreeJacobZuma protest campaign is legitimate or not is irrelevant. What is interesting is that the presence of Amabutho at Zuma’s home led the President and many analysts to incorrectly characterise the whole protest as ‘tribal mobilisations of the Zulu’- a retreat to IFP type of cultural identity politics of the 90s.

The quick spread of the #FreeJacobZuma protests to become #ShutdownSA and its spread to other provinces demonstrate that the Ramaphosa’s tribal characterisation of the protests was incorrect.

Whether we like it or not, we must remember that Zuma is seen by many as a symbol for socio-economic justice, a champion of radical economic transformation (RET) and a victim of white monopoly capital (WMC) that seeks to maintain the suffocating socio-economic status quo at all costs.

Ramaphosa and his ANC should have realised that supporters of Zuma or not, the moment to protest for socio-economic justice, to call for economic transformation and looting of malls and large retail stores believed to be part of the WMC value chain, serves the interest of poor people who continue to exist outside the capitalist economy.

The protests and mass looting taking place following the former president’s arrest in KwaZulu-Natal is not an ethnic or tribal crisis. Reducing it to such blocks us from a genuine conversation about the nervous condition of South Africans.

Like many before it, this rupture communicates how not all people of this country experience a sense of belonging and solidarity, a large number of people do not have access to opportunities to build a better life for themselves, those in positions of power do not seem to care and the looting by private sector and politicians, even during a pandemic, signals a destruction of common values.

Busani Ngcaweni captured the essence of this erosion in common values on a Facebook post on Monday noting that “on the phenomenon called looting, we see parallels between the elite and the lumpen, both loot according to their proximity to what can be looted - the elite loot millions using sophisticated instruments. Whereas the lumpen loot necessities in local retail shops”.

Zuma’s arrest was but a spark for the current unrest and looting. The flame is socio-economic inequality driven by mass unemployment, poverty, corruption and many other drivers.

Richard Turner, in his book The Eye of the Needle, is correct that most black people see inequalities they suffer as a result of exploitation and inequality. Indeed, the structure of South Africa 27 years after the attainment of democracy is still a function of the past.

Turner makes two observation that are very relevant to this very moment in which South Africa finds itself.

The first being that intergroup conflicts and tensions are ultimately bound up with economic inequality, with conflict over ownership of resources and industry.

Secondly, that a just society cannot be brought about in this country by simply declaring equality and opportunity. Political will and radical shifts in economic policy need to be made. We cannot just declare we are a developmental state in the National Development Plan. The ANC ought to be brave enough to dismantle the capitalist status quo and put poor people first.

The Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) book Nation Formation and Social Cohesion notes that social cohesion signifies a process related to nation formation based on optimal inclusion and solidarity, concerned with addressing the negative effects of economic, social, cultural, and other forms of exclusion.

Again, we circle back to what I believe has driven us to the iGwara Gwara scenario: a decline in social cohesion, internal ANC battles, a gender civil war, trust and governance capacity declines, ethnic and intergenerational conflicts as well as record high unemployment rates. All these drivers, South Africa’s Achilles’ heel if you will, are caused by the continuous mass exclusion and inequality of South Africans from meaningful socio-economic participation. By addressing inequality, we might reduce the frequency of these mass ruptures.

Wandile M Ngcaweni is a junior researcher at Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA) & a Master’s candidate at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies. You can follow him on Twitter at @WNgcaweni

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