There is a worrisome overlap of business with political interests that places the needs of ordinary citizens at risk. This is the recipe of a capital-driven democracy and this propensity is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The eruption of violence and destruction in July in South Africa has had a major impact on the image of our country. The sense of political stability was shaken and the desperation of poor people, who were at the very sharp end of the effects of months long lockdown conditions, was heightened.
The harrowing images of a mother throwing her baby down from a burning building only to be caught and rescued by strangers, is a grim reminder of the depravity of poverty and its ability to remove one's dignity. "It is expensive to be poor," commented one social media user. More so because only a few of us can continue our lives as if COVID-19 is just an inconvenience, while to the 'unwashed masses', lockdown is a major disruptor of everyday hustles and survival.
There are too many elements at play here – too many moving parts as it were. The root of the problem is much bigger than just the unhappiness that relates to the incarceration of a former president. It is bigger than just the looting of shops and burning of trucks, or even the deployment of military personnel. In some ways, the problem is also much smaller than these compounded problems. It seems to me that the problem is balancing the dire needs of the poverty-stricken masses of South Africans, with the demands of capital compounded by a State that seems so closely aligned with business and industry. This combination has been taken advantage of, by the criminal – and often disgruntled political – elements.
Whether it was an attempt at an insurrection, rampant criminality, or desperate acts of poor people, is pure semantics. By this, I do not mean to diminish the importance of defining the situation of a few weeks ago. It is this semantic bickering that does not address the root of the issue. And the issue is this: the continued lockdown of the country fuels all manner of opportunism (political, violent, criminal etc.), but it also exacerbates the hunger of the poorest of the poor. A concerted, well-coordinated effort to fight COVID-19 is the answer.
The country's efforts to fight Covid-19 have been negatively impacted because national arterial roads were hit. Major vaccination centres were affected and most of all, the congregation of people in large numbers, to take advantage of the chaos, was a superspreader hazard. The effect of these gatherings with the sole aim of ‘reclaiming’ some economic benefit by the poor in these desperate times, is going to catch up with us in the ensuing weeks – with a spike in infections. The poor see the rich ‘going on with their lives’, while they cannot go anywhere to eke out a living for themselves. It is easy for the rich to isolate, but the poor have never isolated - even in the absence of a global pandemic - because of their living conditions. This kind of ‘reclamation of economics and livelihoods’ cannot be justified under any circumstances. It can only thrive as anarchy under a leadership that is under strain.
South Africa has been a model country for some semblance of democracy, potential prosperity, and political stability. This is what is required at this time. Because of the time we are in, political opportunism – where poor people can be easily mobilised into acts of crime and 'revolution' – is the real threat that crime intelligence should put a finger on. Many people have lost their lives – as many as 300 – in the two weeks during these acts of violence and crime – that is, families have lost loved ones and in many cases breadwinners. This is 300 too many. Scores are now facing charges of theft, being accessories to crime and possession of stolen goods.
The restraint of the police and military personnel in dealing with the perpetrators is the only encouraging factor. So far, not one fatality has been reported to be the result of excessive force by our police or soldiers. If this had happened, it would have put our political leadership in trouble. It would be perceived as brutality against the poor in defence of the property of the rich. It would take us back to the use of force against the miners of Marikana. I am thankful we did not get to this point. And I am convinced that this was part of the intention of this incitement of violence – to force the hand of the security forces to act violently so that the government of the day can be blamed, blemished and somewhat delegitimised.
In the violent looting hysteria of Gauteng, the only shops that were not looted in shopping malls were bookstores, but much was destroyed in several commercial shopping centres. Food / groceries, furniture, appliances and all manner of stores were raided. Between Johannesburg and Durban, on the arterial N3 national road, over 20 trucks transporting commercial goods and headed for the ports, were set alight, and the road blocked for days.
More than anything, I think this is the time to show a collective nationalism that has at its centre – the handling of COVID-19 and upliftment of the marginalised – so that we can all get back to ‘normal’. This idea of ‘normalcy’ is a misnomer too, because lives have not been normal in South Africa for a long time. The degrees and levels of poverty in South Africa cannot be considered normal under any circumstances. The new post-COVID-19 normal, must be one that ensures that South Africa’s prosperity and economic gains are open to all. COVID-19 has not been the great equaliser. Instead, it has widened the chasm between the different levels and spheres of our nation. The poor are the most affected. The middle class who live from paycheck to paycheck are on the verge of poverty, while the rich experience COVID-19 with their privilege intact and the pandemic as a mere inconvenience to their daily lives.
My recent move to a low-cost neighbourhood after a long time of middle-income, suburban existence has given me fresh eyes to the real living conditions of the majority of South Africa’s population. While no amount of looting, stealing or anarchy can be justified by one’s poverty, there is no dignity in being poor. There is no honour in living on the breadline. There is no pride in telling your children to eat starch with the gravy of last night’s meal simply because no one will see the contents of their stomachs. The depraved desperation of poverty is heart-wrenching, and our high-brow analyses should always take this into consideration.
We should be grateful that we did not live through a World War, famine and a global pandemic all rolled in one. The sporadic unrest, criminality and poor leadership in the middle of a pandemic form a recipe for disaster. This is time for unity, ubuntu and leadership (not only political) to ensure the well-being, prosperity and safety of each other.
*Phehello Mofokeng is the founder and editor-in-chief of BKO Literary Magazine.