The recent riots in parts of London were immediately dismissed as the workings of “opportunistic criminals” and “thugs”, which, no doubt, is partly true.
However, it is equally true to say that the violence has occurred within a disturbing and seemingly worsening socioeconomic context – a reality that is not in any way unique to the UK and is probably far worse in many other parts of the world, including in South Africa.
That context is the worrying and almost globally ubiquitous rise in youth unemployment, as well as the concurrent failure by governments the world over to provide solutions suggestive of any reprieve in the near future.
Young people are also increasingly angry by what they perceive to be chronic corruption within governments and businesses – a corruption that seemingly protects ruling elites and leaves outsiders feeling increasingly vulnerable and marginalised.
Add into that mix the rise new forms of communication that allow for rapid information dissemination, as well as unorthodox forms of protest and organisation, and the situation can quickly turn volatile.
Without doubt, it was this same social setting that led a desperate Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, to set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, after police unfairly confiscated his vegetable cart and humiliated him.
Bouazizi’s suicide sparked Tunisia’s so-called ‘Jasmine Revolution’, which subsequently had a domino effect across North Africa and the Middle East, the repercussions of which are still be felt in places such as Egypt, Libya and Syria.
It is surely this same level of frustration that has spurred many of South Africa’s recent violent demonstrations – uprisings that are euphemistically described as ‘service delivery’ protests. What if these protest were not constrained by apartheid planning and began spilling over into commercial districts?
South Africans should, therefore, be sitting up and paying close attention to events in Tottenham, Athens and Cairo, because the position of youth in this country is no better than it is in such places. In fact, it is worse.
A recent Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development report showed that South Africa had the worst rate of unemployment for youth between the ages of 15 and 24 among 36 countries surveyed in 2008. The report shows that, while other middle-income emerging market economies employed about 80% of their working-age youth, the figure in South Africa was closer to 50%.
The situation is compounded by racial disparities, with a total of 53,4% of all young black Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 unemployed, which is three times worse than the 14,5% unemployment rate among young white South Africans.
That reality provides a breeding ground for youthful anger and even reckless rhetoric, as is currently epitomised by the call for nationalisation. However, the remedy surely lies not in condemnation, but in offering realistic alternatives. Unfortunately, such alternatives seem to be in short supply.