Protesters on the N3 at Marianhill toll plaza. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN​
Protesters on the N3 at Marianhill toll plaza. Picture: JACKIE CLAUSEN​

There’s a toxic brew bubbling under on the fringes of our country. Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen a sharp rise in protests around SA — be it increasingly volatile demonstrations near Hermanus, or in Mitchells Plain and the Bo-Kaap near Cape Town or in Centurion in Gauteng or in Kimberley. The country has seldom been so close to the edge.

Part of it has to do with soaring living costs — something about which all political parties including, ironically, the ANC, have expressed concerns.

Certainly, the combined knock of the 10.7% spike in the fuel price this year, the hike in VAT and further retrenchments are reverberating as the country enters election season.

At the same time, nothing has shifted unemployment from its stubbornly high level of 36.7% (using the expanded definition). Few other democracies could tolerate the human impact of having more than a third of their labour force out of work. Here, we’ve done it for years.

The perfect storm – the consequence of years of neglect under former president Jacob Zuma, whose administration shifted its focus from delivery to accumulation — is beginning to whip up into a squall that, some fear, can’t be tamed.

This week Municipal IQ, which tracks and monitors protests across SA, said the unrest in communities was set to reach a record high this year. By the end of June, Municipal IQ had recorded 144 major service-delivery protests. This is already more than 2016, when 137 such protests were recorded for the entire year.

Municipal IQ MD Kevin Allan says there is an "alarming increase in violent confrontations between protesters and police". As Allan says, the chances of constructive engagement on the original grievances are lost when violence occurs.

In Kimberley in the Northern Cape, the community erupted over demands that the mayor and leadership of the Sol Plaatje municipality resign. The protesters went on a rampage, and 202 people were arrested. It was the same in the North West province earlier this year, when protesters burnt buildings as they demanded the resignation of premier Supra Mahumapelo.

It’s the sort of volatile undercurrent that, in 2010, sparked the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East, laying waste to the administrations of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.

Worryingly, in Kimberley and the North West, the protesters weren’t going to wait to go to the polls to change leaders. The unrealistic expectations raised by Cyril Ramaphosa’s "new dawn" have also heightened frustrations, even though immediate change was never likely.

But rather than put in place real solutions to create jobs, axe the delinquents, and fast-track title deed transfers of existing state land, government leaders are sipping tea. The inevitable result will be that the politicians will feel compelled to indulge in increasingly populist rhetoric to put out individual fires.

The ANC, of course, has done itself no favours. At the coal face of government — the municipalities — things are dire. Co-operative governance & traditional affairs minister Zweli Mkhize told parliament in May that only 7% of the country’s municipalities were "well functioning", while 31% remained "dysfunctional or distressed".

Very clearly, the ANC has run out of ideas. The best it can do is bemoan what its own leaders are doing in government.

It is little wonder citizens are fed up and taking to the streets. But the ruling elites are still behaving as if the fuse hasn’t been lit — holding "consultations", "workshops" and "indabas". They must act now, if there’s still time.