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Things fall apart in South Africa today and ANC leadership appears unable to act decisively


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Things fall apart in South Africa today and ANC leadership appears unable to act decisively

Raymond Suttner
Photo by Madelene Cronje
Raymond Suttner

25th October 2021

By: Raymond Suttner


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There is a general sense of “things falling apart” in South Africa today, something more than corruption or widespread ineffectiveness, but a broader systemic failure in the state at various levels but also, manifestations of social disintegration, breaking of already fairly fragile bonds between inhabitants of the country, and apparently more extensive abusive behaviour.

It is necessary to return to the notion that the people who were oppressed under apartheid remain oppressed in present conditions, more than 27 years after the onset of democracy. That is not to say that those who are oppressed today are exactly the same people or categories of people as those under apartheid. Some have escaped, to a greater or lesser extent, into better living situations and the conditions of some may have worsened.


The manifestation of this oppression means the failure to meet the “basic needs” of most of the inhabitants of the country, as required under the Constitution. It also entails widespread violence and human rights abuse directed mainly against the poor, as witnessed in extended form, during the lockdown. It is, however, a fact of life that the poor and marginalised can count on police violence as a feature of their lives.

State violence is also part of widespread social violence in society at large, generally the preferred method of resolving conflicts in the country, especially on the part of men.


But the embrace of oppression has also expanded to include new categories of people or those who figured only in a limited way in pre-democracy South Africa. These include black people who come from other parts of Africa, or parts of Asia, who experience ongoing xenophobic attacks, sometimes emanating from state harassment, including violence or failure to clarify their status or police demanding financial bribes or sex to leave them alone.

Sometimes these attacks derive from South African citizens, in townships or other under-privileged conditions, who are hungry and often unemployed and who may blame foreign-born black people for their plight, either because they believe it is so or because they are egged on by local traders or others who aim to benefit from xenophobic attacks on African or Asian traders who derive from outside South Africa.

Reports have documented that police generally do not protect those under attack or prevent looting or destruction of their resources and they have sometimes been witnessed joining in the stealing.

Violence has been a marked feature of the managing of lockdown. Lockdown has also created a more vulnerable home space, increasing gender-based violence. But the general prevalence of violence in South Africa impacts especially on women and gays, lesbians and other LGBTQIA people. Most of these attacks may not be by police, but they have proved unresponsive to complaints of gender or sexually based attacks when reported to police stations and often in the courts.

The official violence is systemic, not simply a few “bad eggs”, because while there are many honourable and professional police and other public servants, those who conduct illegal or corrupt activities are sufficiently numerous to constitute a systemic phenomenon.

The continuity of systemic oppression is related to the political dominance and simultaneous gradual collapse and disintegration of the authority and legitimacy of the ANC as an organisation of freedom fighters. The notion of a freedom fighter is not simply a slogan. One merely needs to consider the heroic figures in liberation history to whom contemporary ANC discourse still tries to link itself, to understand that there was a time when the ANC did fight for freedom and put all its resources towards achieving freedom, and was identified with a freedom that had not yet been realised.

The notion of a freedom fighter is not restricted to well-known figures like Chris Hani, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Lilian Ngoyi, Yusuf Dadoo and others. There are many people in remote areas, not appearing on maps of the time who fought for freedom, often in the Bantustans and also in many cases without formal recruitment to the ANC or other organisations. They did what they thought would be required by the ANC or in their own understanding to advance the cause of freedom.

Unfortunately, the hope that many cherished for an ever-broadening notion of freedom unfolding after 1994 has not been realised. It is not because Nelson Mandela and others made “secret deals” with the apartheid regime and capital to ensure that the poor would never have the opportunity to improve their lot. It is documented that some of the early communications with the regime aroused suspicion and it may be that some would have wanted such deals, but it was not within the power of any individual or small group of people to achieve.

The notion of an “elite pact” deciding everything in secret before 1994 is founded on a notion of politics that is itself elitist. That an elite pact could decide what happened after 1994 depends on erasing the role that the masses played in forcing the apartheid regime to the negotiating table to concede democratic rule. The negotiations derived from a multi-pronged attack on apartheid on a range of fronts where the role of the masses was decisive. This led to the enactment of a new Constitution, which provided the basis for an ongoing expansion of liberty of all the inhabitants of South Africa.

There are a number of signs at the moment of disintegration of the South African social and political order. It is manifested in widespread lawlessness, violence, assassinations, apparently unstoppable attacks on railway lines, assaults on and stealing of ammunition from police stations, explosions destroying valuable energy resources and a range of other actions, sometimes described as “inexplicable” attacks on economically important infrastructure. This comes at a time of economic crisis entailing widespread job losses and low growth - with extensive hunger among sections of the population.

South Africa saw a complex series of violent actions in July, sometimes termed an insurrection and also entailing extensive looting, constituting a big challenge to the constitutional order costing lives and billions of rands in looting and destruction.

Only a short while ago a group of self-proclaimed Struggle veterans held three leading government figures hostage. Many of those involved in this action have criminal records, in some cases for committing serious crimes. That this and the July violence could happen points to serious intelligence and security flaws.

This occurred with ongoing political assassinations in the run up to the forthcoming local government elections, killings that are by no means a new phenomenon in South Africa, spreading from a predominantly KwaZulu-Natal base to the rest of South Africa.

Again, much of this is done with impunity. To some extent, the impunity derives from links between law breakers and those who are charged with law enforcement in South Africa, and many of these people are linked to political parties, especially the ruling ANC. The propensity to violence and assassinations was enhanced through the absorption in large numbers of former Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) warlords into the ANC as part of “peace making” in the 1990s.

The problem for the ANC is that even if they are complicit in this, even if they have been lackadaisical in enforcing the law, if they now want to prevent assassinations and violence, it is not the law but law breaking that has become normative.

We know that a police officer like Lieutenant-Colonel Charl Kinnear was assassinated in the Western Cape apparently because of his determination to clamp down on the illegal spread of weapons from the South African Police Services (SAPS) to gangsters and other law breakers. This is just one such case that received public attention.

The police service is split down the middle, with some leading figures in the fight against criminality themselves dismissed or suspended or shifted to less strategically significant positions. One thinks here of Generals Jeremy Vearey, Andre Lincoln, and Peter Jacobs, among others.

In characterising the divisions alluded to as disintegration, and perhaps breaking up of the South African polity, we can identify certain moments as being important in this process. In the case of former President Jacob Zuma one had a fairly strong leader deciding to use his presidential powers to undermine the foundations of the Constitution. This happened and was initially condoned by the ANC and its allies, despite laws laying down very clear demarcations of what was allowed and what disallowed.

The process of disintegration has however continued under the “New Dawn” of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The way in which disintegration is now happening under Ramaphosa is not out of the strength of his leadership, but rather its weakness. The same process of disintegration is continuing, albeit more through passivity, through creating or enabling an environment where wrongdoers are still able to continue to undermine the social order.

Ramaphosa may not be actively undermining the rule of law through acts of corruption and patronage. However, he has proven to be unable to manage the responsibilities of a head of state, to ensure the liberties of all through maintaining legality and policing criminality.

In fact, Ramaphosa is in the habit of being silent about very important systemic breaches. In the case of the violence wreaked against the people of South Africa, and in particular the poorest of the poor during the lockdown, Ramaphosa has mainly said nothing. In relation to the instability that he described as insurrection, he has not explained why there have not been prosecutions and clamp downs on wrongdoers, who were many.

Ambiguity is dangerous in a context of challenge to institutions and social order. Anyone who wants to undermine the state, anyone who wants to ensure that state institutions disintegrate, finds ambiguity on the side of the authorities to be an ally in the process they undertake. People need to demand firm action in defence of constitutional rights, preventing violence and also imposing a duty to meet the basic needs of all who live in South Africa.

Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. His books include Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2 ed 2017), The ANC Underground (2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (2015), all published by Jacana Media. His twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.


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