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South Africa on the edge

Par Cédric Gouverneur - Publié en novembre 2022
the economic capital.SHUTTERSTOCK
Johannesbourg ,the economic capital.SHUTTERSTOCK 

Thirty years after the fall of apartheid, the country is facing multiple crises: low growth, scarce energy, record crime, corruption, persistent social inequalities inherited from segregation... The dream of a prosperous "rainbow nation" is getting further away every day.

André de Ruyter is "sorry". The managing director of the state-owned electricity company Eskom has nothing better to say to his customers, who are deprived of power on average three times a day, for two to four hours. These blackouts, modestly called "load shedding", are ruining the daily lives of 60 million South Africans, especially the poorest, those who cannot afford to buy a generator or solar panels. It is impossible to heat, cook, store food in the refrigerator, work on a computer... The situation is so catastrophic that in September, President Cyril Ramaphosa had to cut short his visit to Great Britain after the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. Decades of neglect and lack of investment in infrastructure have left Eskom unable to fulfill its mission. Ted Blom, an energy expert interviewed in late September by the eNCA news channel, points to the responsibility of André de Ruyter, who chose to slash maintenance operations in order to pay off the company's debts.  

South Africa's economic situation was further complicated in October by the strike affecting Transnet, the state-owned company that manages ports and freight trains. Cargo ships are piling up because they cannot be unloaded. This strike "is the last thing the economy needs," the bosses associations Business Leadership South Africa and Business Unity South Africa said in a joint statement: "The message to the global economy is that working with South Africa is risky. This will add significant costs to the unloading of goods and their transportation by truck, adding to that growing inflation rates." At 6.6% in 2022, inflation is at its highest level in 13 years. Conversely, the national currency is at its lowest since the April 2020 confinement. "Transnet's problems have already cost us R50 billion this year," said Roger Baxter, chairman of the Minerals Council South Africa, which represents the sector. The country is unable to export the riches of its subsoil: due to a lack of transport, three quarters of the production of coal, iron, manganese and chromium remain on docks. According to Baxter, only 120,000 tons of minerals are exported each day, compared to the usual 456,000.  

A trader in his store during a power cut, in Soweto, in April 2022. SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS
A trader in his store during a power cut, in Soweto, in April 2022. SIPHIWE SIBEKO / REUTERS


More bad news: crime is breaking records. With an average of more than 20,000 homicides committed each year, the southern African giant is one of the most violent countries in the world. In 2020, the World Bank reported an average of 33 murders per 100,000 people, most of them by firearms. By comparison, the homicide rate is 9 per 100,000 in sub-Saharan Africa, 1 per 100,000 in Europe, and 22 per 100,000 in Latin America. Only Central American countries (gangrenous with tattooed gangs) do worse than the rainbow nation! But the latest figures are disastrous anyway: according to the South African Police Service, more than 6,400 murders were committed between April and June. That's nearly 70 per day. A figure 12% higher than in 2021. "This is high and worrisome," laments Police Minister Bheki Cele.  

Faced with the risk of robbery and assault, the rich and middle class are retreating to safe compounds, acquiring firearms and hiring private security companies. While the murders of white farmers are highly publicized (and exploited by apartheid nostalgists who speak of "white genocide"), crime affects the entire nation, across all communities and social classes. And in the absence of effective policing, the poor are more vulnerable because they cannot afford security guards or simply a burglar-proof door. In the townships, being mugged or robbed is a constant threat. Gangs reign by terror: on July 10, ruthless killers machine-gunned the patrons of two bars in Soweto (Gauteng province) and Pietermaritzburg (KwaZulu-Natal province, nicknamed "KZN"), killing about 20 people. It is not known what the motive was, or even if the two massacres were related. In August, in Limpopo province, a mob stoned and then burned two suspected thieves to death. And now, it is not uncommon to hear blacks from the working classes proclaiming they are in favor of the death penalty, affirm that there was less crime under apartheid, or display their xenophobia towards immigrants, the new scapegoats of South Africa misery. The so-called "rainbow nation", founded on the rubble of apartheid, is regularly prey to anti-immigrant violence, which results in dozens of deaths. In March 2019, a national action plan against xenophobia was launched, but it is hardly implemented according to the international NGO Human Rights Watch, which denounces the impunity of racist violence. In September 2019, about 1,000 Bangladeshi-owned stores were attacked. The xenophobic movement Operation Dudula ("push back" in Zulu) has recently emerged to intimidate businesses employing foreigners. It was founded by a man named Lux Dlamini, who was prominent in defending shops and businesses during the 2021 riots.

In the foreground, Julius Malema, the bubbling leader of the Fighters for Economic Freedom, during a rally ahead of local elections in Nyanga township, near Cape Town, October 22, 2021. MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS
In the foreground, Julius Malema, the bubbling leader of the Fighters for Economic Freedom, during a rally ahead of local elections in Nyanga township, near Cape Town, October 22, 2021. MIKE HUTCHINGS / REUTERS

The use of vigilantism and self-defense indeed characterized the looting of July 2021, in the days following the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, forced to resign in February 2018 for corruption charges. Rioters wreaked havoc in KZN – Zuma’s stronghold - and around Johannesburg. Within a week, about 1,200 stores (including 200 liquor stores), 200 shopping centers and 1,400 ATMs were looted, with the slogan "Free Zuma” written on the walls. Nearly 350 people lost their lives during this utter madness: shootings, fires, stampedes... The damage was estimated at 50 billions rand. Cyril Ramaphosa pointed to an "attempted coup" and "economic sabotage" planned by Zuma's supporters in the African National Congress (ANC). More than a year later, the city of Durban has still not fully recovered. With most small shops uninsured, owners and vendors have joined the ranks of the unemployed - the unemployment rate, already swollen by the health crisis, is officially estimated at 32.6 per cent. The South African Broadcasting Corporation filmed some startling scenes: Durban was jammed with looters who came to take advantage of the windfall. The police, totally overwhelmed, were almost absent. When reporters asked why they were stealing, the looters often replied, "Why not?”.  In a way, an opportunistic mass delinquency, a shocking response to the lack of economic opportunity. "People are sitting with nothing, so it's very easy for fires to be stoked," explained political science professor Narnia Bohler-Muller. Especially since no looter has been convicted by the courts…!

A policeman tries to control looting during a riot in Durban, July 12, 2021. EPA / EFE
A policeman tries to control looting during a riot in Durban, July 12, 2021. EPA / EFE


Faced with the inaction of police forces, many communities have taken charge of their security. This phenomenon of privatization of self-defense (known in the United States as "vigilantism") threatens the rule of law, characterized by what the German thinker Max Weber (1864-1920) defined as "the monopoly of legitimate violence" in the hands of law enforcement alone. "The failure of the state is turning us into a nation of vigilantes," said political analyst Ralph Mathekga. In Umzimkulu, Underberg, Soweto, residents have set up roadblocks and, with machetes in hand, are pushing back the attackers. Since the looting of 2021, requests to carry weapons have exploded. Neighborhoods have been equipped with video surveillance and automatic license plate recognition cameras that spot unknown vehicles. Vigilantes patrol their neighborhoods and report any anomalies via instant messaging applications. In Phoenix, a suburb of Durban where the majority of residents are of Indian origin, vigilantism has degenerated into racist lynching: dozens of black people have been killed by local residents. This has aggravated tensions between the black and Indo-African communities (2 to 3 per cent of the country's population, but 25 per cent in the Durban region). Both were discriminated against at different levels during apartheid and their relations are tense due to the persistence of de facto segregation of housing, which fosters mutual hatred and prejudice. Three decades after the abolition of the Group Areas Act (1950-1991), the racist law that segregated housing, it is clear that outside the city centers neighborhoods remain almost ethnically “homogeneous”. Feizel Mamdoo, a veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle, also denounces the widespread use - in the street as well as in the media - of the usual denomination of "Indians": a stigmatizing term, implying that Indo-Africans would be foreigners, rather than full-fledged citizens whose ancestors settled in the country as early as the 1860s.  Also, Blacks and Indo-Africans generally occupy different positions on the social scale, the latter often being traders or exercising liberal professions. Poverty alone does not explain the crime rate. Statistics show that the most criminogenic countries are those where social inequalities are the most profound. South Africa, Brazil, Honduras... On the other hand, Bangladesh, poor and overpopulated, has a low crime rate. A recent report by the World Bank confirms that, out of 164 states analyzed, South Africa is the most unequal. Marie Françoise Marie-Nelly, director of the institution's Southern Africa Department, explains that "birth conditions, over which an individual has little or no control, determine overall inequalities of access. Being born to black parents with no education and living in a township or rural area is "a starting point that influences a lifetime trajectory. The Bank notes that blacks (80 per cent of the population) "are still experiencing the structural effects of apartheid", while whites (8 to 9 per cent) "benefit from wealth accumulated over generations" since the arrival of the first settlers in 1652.  

In power since 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa is suspected of having hidden the theft of $ 4 million from one of his private properties and of having bought the silence of burglars. SHUTTERSTOCK
In power since 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa is suspected of having hidden the theft of $ 4 million from one of his private properties and of having bought the silence of burglars. SHUTTERSTOCK


Three decades after the abolition of the racist regime, the ANC, which has been in power without interruption since the first free elections in 1994, has not been successful at radically changing the deck of cards: the vast majority of blacks have difficulty accessing health care, education, electricity, security, housing and land, and are now more exposed to the disasters caused by global warming (droughts, floods, landslides). The land question is particularly symptomatic of the persistence of inequalities inherited from apartheid. The word "Boer" means "peasant" in Dutch: with bible and rifle in hand, these colonists stripped Africans of their land. In 1913, the Natives Land Act legalized this dispossession, forcing some 4 million peasants to swell the townships and end up working in the mines. The ANC was founded in 1912, in part as a reaction to this law of dispossession. However, despite repeated promises of redistribution since 1994, the situation has hardly changed: three quarters of the land still belongs to a few thousand white farmers. In 2006, only a little more than 3% had been redistributed (10 times less than promised), often to the benefit of relatives of political party pundits...

 At the end of 2017, Jacob Zuma's faction within the ANC pushed a law calling for "expropriation without compensation" of large estates resulting from colonization. The objective is to curb the rise of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), on the left of the party, and embarrass Zuma's successor, the more centrist Xhosa Cyril Ramaphosa. With success: Since then, the land issue has plagued the President’s mandate, trapped between the right to property (guaranteed by the 1996 Constitution), the blacks' aspiration for justice, and the EFF's radicalism. When, in December 2021, the ANC proposed amending section 25 of the Constitution to authorize expropriation without compensation, the EFF MPs paradoxically voted against: for Julius Malema, their ebullient leader, the text did not go far enough yet. And there is no question for these new revolutionaries to support the ANC (which they scoff as “sold” ") in legally implementing land reform. The issue is at the heart of his Malema’s electoral message: shortly after the vote, he called on blacks to seize the land owned by “children of criminals"...  

If the land equation seems doomed to remain insoluble, it is also due to the lack of interest of the ANC bourgeoisie and pundits for rural masses, which have been abandoned in favor of emerging black middle classes. The ANC's leaders may still refer to themselves as "comrades", just as in the days of the liberation struggle, socialism gave way to business and also racketeering. Leaders have been, in turn, involved in scandals. The latest case to date: President Ramaphosa is accused of having concealed from the police - and the tax authorities - a burglary at his private property in Phala Phala (Limpopo province), where 4 million dollars were allegedly stolen. Wads of cash were hidden in a piece of furniture, discovered by a domestic worker and then stolen by members of his entourage. The President is suspected by the former head of intelligence, Arthur Fraser, of having bought the silence of the burglars. Ramaphosa claims the money came from the sale of ankole cattle, but the South African Central Bank is surprised that it was not informed...

 Where the matter becomes more complicated is that Fraser is a close to Jacob Zuma. The latter was quick to publicly accuse his hated rival of "corruption" and "treason". With his judicial supervision just lifted, the former president no longer hides his intention to return to politics! Even if he is entangled in several corruption scandals: the Thales affair (an accusation of bribes on the sidelines of an arms contract in 1999, when he was vice-president), and above all the sprawling Gupta affair, named after this sibling of Indian industrialists, accused of siphoning off huge amount public money with his blessing. The Gupta connection won lucrative public contracts (notably with Eskom and Transnet) in exchange for kickbacks, such as the appointment of members of the Zuma family to the company [see our article in Afrique Magazine n° 391]. The "Zupta" clan's astounding "State grab" has been described by former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa as "the worst crime committed against the South African people since apartheid”. Two of the Guptas, Atul and Tony, on the run since 2016, were arrested in June in Dubai and are expected to be extradited. But in any case, the fact that the ex-president can consider a return to power - at 80 years old, and despite such scandals - speaks volumes about the cynicism of some of the country's elites!  Madiba", who died in 2013, must be turning in his grave...  


In December, a divided ANC will hold internal voting to designate the leader of the party. And in fact, decide who will be its candidate for the 2024 presidential election. With a comfortable majority in the National Assembly and eight of the nine provincial assemblies, the "liberators' party" is still banking on the prestige of its victory over apartheid and the loyalty of black South Africans to win at the ballots. The fact remains that in the December 2021 municipal elections, the party won less than half of the national vote for the first time (46 per cent). The opposition remains fragmented between, in order of importance, the Democratic Alliance (liberal, center), the Economic Freedom Fighters (pan-Africanist, far left), the Inkatha Freedom Party (Zulu regionalist, right) and the Freedom Front (Afrikaner, right).

Long handicapped by its image as a "pro white party," the Democratic Alliance has been able to win over more and more black and mixed-race voters, thanks to its growing diversity and its rigorous management of Cape Town and the province of Western Cape. But according to a July survey by the Social Research Foundation, the demographic weight of the township and rural votes should help the ANC win the 2024 elections. Political analyst Ralph Mathekga, author of The ANC last decade, says the African National Congress is "good at liberating the country, much less governing it”.

The depth of South Africa's crisis, the inertia of the majority party and the lack of alternatives carry the risk - as in the July 2021 looting - of a major social explosion, jeopardizing Nelson Mandela's powerful idea of a rainbow nation.