SPECIAL REPORT: Why SA is burning
SA’s violent predemocratic history may provide some explanation for current social conflict. But state incapacity, government inaction and a political culture of impunity fan the flames of violence
SA is in the midst of a perfect storm. Economic deprivation, inequality and disturbing levels of unemployment, combined with a limping criminal justice system, compromised intelligence services and a demoralised police force, make our townships, suburbs, universities and even post offices fertile ground for violent crime.
Another wave of xenophobic violence, protests, looting and criminality gripped swathes of Joburg in the past two weeks. It began with attacks on trucks driven by foreigners in KwaZulu-Natal; the industry reported that more than 60 vehicles were torched in just three weeks in June.
At the same time, the rape and murder of University of Cape Town student Uyinene Mrwetyana again cast into horrifying relief how vulnerable women are in our society. Mrwetyana was raped, murdered, burnt and buried in a shallow grave, allegedly by a post office employee — a man with a history of assaulting women.
The rule of law cannot be a slogan, it requires implementation, resources, budget and a sense of urgencyCharles van Niekerk
Her death followed the murder of boxer Leighandre Jegels by her partner — against whom she had a protection order.
President Cyril Ramaphosa last week addressed a nation he described as "in mourning and in pain", a country "traumatised".
It was a bitter pill for Ramaphosa to swallow, given that he held a presidential summit on gender-based violence just nine months ago. The declaration that followed had noted that SA has the highest rate of femicide in the world — a "national crisis".
SA’s violent predemocratic history provides a basis to explain the culture of violence. But, 25 years on, this legacy isn’t being reversed.
One possible reason is incapacity among law enforcement agencies, from the police to crime intelligence and state security.
Charles van Niekerk, a sessional lecturer in intelligence studies at the Wits School of Governance, says the recent poor handling of mob attacks and protests in Gauteng is not only symptomatic of an "intelligence failure", but a "bigger-picture failure" of security and crime intelligence.
Some reports indicate that SA’s intelligence services were aware of plans for a violent resurgence of xenophobic attacks, which peaked as the World Economic Forum on Africa kicked off in Cape Town.
But if the government knew that the attacks were coming, why was it powerless to stop them?
Van Niekerk says the responses of government officials in the media show there was inadequate gathering of appropriate information by security services, and poor interpretation of the open-source information and structured analysis that would have elicited an appropriate, informed response.
This, he says, occurred alongside aggravating factors at a societal level, including unemployment, frustration and ethnocentrism.
"The whole security sector requires an infusion of creativity, guts, better capacity and a much higher level of competence. The rule of law cannot be a slogan, it requires implementation, resources, budget and a sense of urgency," Van Niekerk says.
It is something of a tall order, however, with so many law enforcement agencies on their knees after a decade of state capture and corruption.
The state capture project entailed "repurposing" state institutions to further the designs and the protection of a small elite in the ANC and business. Institutions hollowed out during this period include the police, the Hawks, crime intelligence, the National Prosecuting Authority and the State Security Agency.
ANC ally the SACP elaborated on this problem after a weekend meeting, expressing deep concern about the erosion of the "capacity and strategic discipline of the state".
Party general secretary Blade Nzimande said: "This erosion of state authority in many ways and by no small measure has left many households and communities exposed to unabated criminality, which in turn engenders rising levels of anger and its eruption in the form of violent reactions in the coalface of helplessness."
SA’s law enforcement agencies were largely repurposed to turn a blind eye to state capture and aid "rogue or criminal activities", and had also been infiltrated by criminal networks.
"The general outcry in many of our communities about the failure of state organs established to combat crime and corruption is well known. Linked with it, there are rising levels of lack of confidence and even mistrust in our law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system," Nzimande said.
This lack of confidence may be starting to show in the numbers.
Drawing on Stats SA data, the Institute for Security Studies notes that fewer people are reporting crime to the police. Between 2016 and 2018, reporting on murder declined by 6%, reporting car theft was down 12%, hijacking reports declined by 17% and reporting on house robbery dropped 7%.
Prof Susan Booysen, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, also places the blame at the government’s door, saying its inability to predict and then deal decisively with xenophobic protests and looting is an indictment.
What it means
The government has proved incapable of predicting and then dealing decisively with social violence
Booysen says it is also symptomatic of SA’s political culture, where citizens have seen political leaders from across the spectrum act with impunity and face little by way of consequence for wrongdoing. Populist anti-immigrant rhetoric further fans the flames, as does the sense of hopelessness and despair that comes with the economic deprivation experienced by the majority of South Africans.
The situation, Booysen says, is dismal, as unemployment continues to rise and the government seems unable to reverse the situation in the short to medium term.
The events of recent weeks mark yet another bloody block for SA’s women and the vulnerable, poor and black residents at the receiving end of protests and looting. Cynically, politicians will issue placating statements until this round of violence dies down — and once again dust off their speeches when the next wave washes over the nation. Real action, it appears, is too tall an order.