People loot shops in Soweto, July 12 2021. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/PAPI MORAKE
People loot shops in Soweto, July 12 2021. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/PAPI MORAKE

The recent looting of shopping malls has been painful and sobering to watch. It highlights a number of socioeconomic challenges many South Africans face daily that have been worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic and the way it has been handled by government. Should we have seen this coming?

In 2018, the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 project identified three key driving forces that would, among other factors, determine the potential trajectory of the country. These were:

  • Social Inequality (defined within the parameters of asset-based, racial, gender and spatial inequality, as well as intergenerational poverty);
  • Resentment, Resistance & Reconciliation (acknowledging our painful past as a country and the somewhat incomplete reconciliation process); and 
  •  Institutional & Leadership Capacity (focused on the capacity and leadership of state and private institutions as a key determinant of the future).

Since the launch of the scenarios, and well before that, SA has witnessed the systematic failure of these three forces.

The country has always had a problem with inequality and poverty, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s weak response has only made this worse. Many people from both the formal and informal economies were left behind each time a lockdown was imposed, with little to no economic relief made available to them.

Furthermore, the signs were there in the build-up to last week’s looting in SA’s rising unemployment statistics, increasing poverty and rising cost of living. Therefore, what we have seen happening around the country should come as no surprise.

In 2019, the Global Corruption Barometer identified the SA Police Service as the most corrupt institution in SA, and this has eaten away at their ability to effectively perform their duties. The police were clearly overwhelmed by the mass looting and did not have the capacity to quell the violence and theft.

Failure by the government to deal with corruption and build a functioning state will continue to affect our ability to address the many issues we face. The weak capacity and capability of the state has allowed many to undermine the government and police, and to take the law into their own hands.

Regarding Resentment, Resistance & Reconciliation, SA somehow managed to put a plaster over a festering wound, always avoiding those uncomfortable conversations that could greatly contribute to our healing process and deal with some of the issues that are at the core of the many problems we have today.

With these key driving forces the Indlulamithi team produced three scenarios for 2030: iSbhujwa, Nayi le Walk and Gwara Gwara.

Each year a barometer uses empirical data to track social cohesion levels in SA and see which of these three scenarios seems to be "coming true". Last year’s barometer showed SA was 52% trending towards Gwara Gwara —  the scenario furthest away from a socially cohesive nation. It envisions a demoralised land of disorder and decay.

A year later, with the Covid-19 pandemic factored in, the barometer shows our country is now at 59%. And with the recent spate of violence and looting SA seems to be dead straight on the path to descend further still into the Gwara Gwara scenario, where failing and corrupt institutions hamper progress and growth, and where people take things into their own hands as a means to survive.

SA is aware of its problems. But it has always lacked the conviction and political will to be proactive in dealing with them. Instead, the country has tended to take the reactive approach, responding to the issues as they come up.

As a country we need to start being more strategic and intentional about our plans, policies and implementation. We need more far-horizon, long-term thinking to understand our trajectory, using quantified tools of foresight — such as these scenarios — to co-create solutions and correct our course.

Amid all the political infighting, policy uncertainty and many red flags raised along the way, it is safe to say that we saw this coming. But why aren’t we preventing it?                  

• Ngcobo, a bulk logistics professional in the mining industry, is a member of the steering committee of the Indlulamithi SA Scenarios 2030 project. 

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