South Africa July 2021: (Still) lovely beyond all the singing

Turmoil in South Africa 

The events of the week of 11th July 2021 left South Africa reeling. Much has been written about what happened; why; and what needs to be done so that it does not happen again. Many “Joe and Jill Does” have resorted to the all too superficial view of both generalizing and ignoring historical context. My reading has been confined to local views: centrist commentators (Biz NewsBusiness Day), generalist news (Independent OnLine) as well as the more left-of-centre sources like The Daily Maverick; Mail and Guardian. I avoid social media – with a few exceptions – as it is not the place to get informed and nuanced opinions! As I often do when incapacitated and paralyzed and wanting to make some order of the cat’s cradle of reasoned conversations I have in my head …  I write. So here goes. I use the word “reasoned”, deliberately. People can disagree … but viewpoints need to be reasoned and based on evidence and contexts

(An aside: at Liz at Lancaster it’s “Business as usual”)

And to our international guests many of whom have contacted us to find out how things are: the areas most affected were far from suburban Johannesburg. Thandie (more below), who was closest to a hotspot for 3 days, found new routes to navigate with her usual extraordinary resilience and remains safe and sound as order has been returned.  There has been both a groundswell of support across race, religion and class for all those affected, as well as the usual opening up of the fault-lines of divisive polarization caused by events like this. Liz at Lancaster is busy (full house this week and next) with guests varying from long-stays, international reporters, medical patients, and, now that we have moved to Lockdown Level 3,  leisure travellers as well as business travellers.  Local feeding schemes and support for the homeless and unemployed have increased activity but, in suburban Johannesburg, this has more to do with Covid and Lockdown rather than the fall-out of the violence per se. 

What’s in a name?

Even the nomenclature of the events of 11th July onwards are up for debate as Zapiro’s cartoon below indicates (Daily Maverick 22/07/21).

It has been variously called: criminality, wanton looting, vandalism; a coup attempt, insurrection, violent uprising, counter-revolution; sedition, incitement to rebel; ethnic mobilization; and more. Most of the centrist and left-wing commentators agree on the many causes of the events of 2 weeks ago: dire poverty and starvation; inequality; unemployment particularly youth unemployment; corruption; the fall-out from State Capture; faction fighting within the ANC; gross failure of the state security cluster and organs of state and government departments generally; failed policies like BEE and cadre deployment; Zuma’s imprisonment as a rallying point.  However, there are differences in terms of what gets prioritized, what angle is chosen, and what solution is offered.

(Still) lovely beyond all the singing

There are of course lots of good stories and initiatives like #RebuildSA and #SAWillRiseAgain plus those who came onto the streets to help restore fractured normality: “The South Africans who rushed in when disaster struck”; as well as those who experienced at first hand the devastating result in affected areas, like Tshabalira Lebakeng, a journalist who lives in Orlando, Soweto.  

So what are some of the fault-lines or ideological differences? 

All the country’s current problems stem from 1994?

Perhaps one of the most fundamental ideological differences arises between those who argue that the hangover and long-lasting effects of Apartheid are still felt and cannot be ignored, versus those who lay all blame solely at the doorstep of the ANC and the post-democratic/post-1994 government.  Johnny Miller‘s drone photographs illustrating Sarah Hoek’s article: “Where you live matters: undoing spatial injustice”, speak a thousand words.   

Primrose and Makause, Johannebsurg Johnny_miller_photography, Daily Maverick 20 July 2021

The long-lasting effect of the 1913 Land Act; the effects of migrant labour on the breakdown of the social fabric; Apartheid’s policy of spatial separation; and the inferior Apartheid Bantu education policy, will take generations to overcome.

Niren Tolsi writes that the violence in Phoenix near Durban, a predominantly Indian area, hark back to the race riots in 1949. 

Who are ‘they’?

Another major positional difference is the habit some have of lumping together all those who were part of the unrest/stealing/vandalism under one umbrella. Some people refer to the anonymous, generalized and “othered” as the inimitable ‘they’.  Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the extraordinary man who founded Gift of the Givers, identifies at least 4 different groups within the amorphous ‘they’: those who are pro-Zuma; the criminal element; the agent provocateurs; and the cannon fodder – the hungry and the opportunists. 

“Senseless violence” or coordinated insurrection? 

Initially many labelled the unrest and looting as “senseless violence”.  Ferial Haffajee (previous editor of Mail and Guardian and then City Press) refers to the What’s App posts which circulated and which indicate clearly that the unrest was planned and co-ordinated.   The posts, apart from using seditious language, also detail which areas and businesses should be attacked, and when. These include amongst others, Shoprite, Pick ‘n Pay, Woolworths, Massmart outlets, banks, medical suppliers and fuel stations. This resulted in the disruption of national fuel and supply lines. 4 of the 12 Twitter accounts central to the investigation of the violence, belong to the RET forces network. The RET [Radical Economic Transformation] faction within the ANC, led by suspended Ace Magashule, supports Zuma and were major benefiters of State Capture – more of that below. 

Support for Zuma – Ethnic mobilization or mobilizing the unemployed and marginalized? 

This is one of the many issues which needs to be teased out. In Johannesburg, the xenophobic attacks of 2008 and 2015 (and outbreaks in between) started around the mostly Zulu (predominantly male?) hostels (a hangover from the migrant labour days of Apartheid). Thandie who works at Liz at Lancaster and lives in Jeppestown, has direct first-hand experience, having lost everything on one occasion, and fleeing with her child and child-minder to the nearest police station on another. Is it a coincidence therefore, that the looting and vandalism in Johannesburg was at its worst around Jeppe, in the eastern Joburg City Centre (near Cleveland and Denver hostels), Alexandra (Madala hostel) and the Jabulani Mall in Soweto near Jabulani hostel?  And Kwazulu-Natal [KZN] is home to Jacob Zuma and has his largest political support base.  

However, no lesser person than Moeletsi Mbeki (brother of Thabo Mbeki … SA’s Ex Pres – but one) says that the notion of ethnic mobilization is a narrative invented by Ramaphosa and the ANC [to deflect attention from the ANC’s failure to deal with inequality, poverty and unemployment]. Mbeki argues that Zuma is not mobilizing “Zuluness”, but rather the poor, marginalized, unemployed and uneducated.  He writes:

So they see him [Zuma] as one of them. He has no education. He doesn’t come from the elite, like the Eastern Cape, like my brother [Thabo Mbeki] and Mandela. He is not a son of a policeman like Cyril Ramaphosa. He is just an ordinary person who was a migrant worker. That’s why they identify with him – there was bound to be a response when he got arrested. They have nothing to lose and a lot to gain by raiding a shopping mall.

Cyril Ramaphosa – weak out-of-control non-leader; non-confrontational “dancer on egg-shells”; caught between a rock-and-a-hard-place; or playing the long-game? 

Almost all “thought leaders” will agree that setting South Africa on the right path has been way too slow. But again, the reasons offered for this vary. There are those who denigrate “Cyril’s” handling of almost everything. I declare my interests: when, in April 2020, Ramaphosa announced the phased relaxation of the initial Lockdown, I admired his clarity,  compassion and gravitas. Despite the fact that he is not going to give Obama or Churchill a run for their money in terms of public speaking, I was deeply grateful (and still am) that he was our President and not some of the other possible contenders. 

An ineffective “dancer on eggshells”?   

Brian Pottinger (former editor of the Sunday Times) writes that Ramaphosa is governing ‘badly, very badly’ and there are loads of rants about what Cyril should be doing or not doing.  Jan Steenhuisen (leader of the opposition: the Democratic Alliance [DA]) quite correctly bemoans the failures of the Government’s safety and security cluster. 

Between a rock-and-a-hard-place?

Moeletsi Mbeki in the article referred to above has another take on laying all blame at the President’s door:  

The ANC is a 110-year-old institution which has policies, which has practices and its policies have failed. Cyril Ramaphosa cannot change ANC policies. So many people keep thinking, “oh, Ramaphosa is going to save South Africa.” Ramaphosa cannot save South Africa and, anyway, the policies that are being pursued by the ANC – which is to advance the interests of the black middle class – are not Ramaphosa policies, those are ANC policies.

Paul Trewhela, (an underground journalist and political activist in the apartheid era and a one-time member (but no longer) of the Communist party), adds another dimension to Mbeki’s argument above, positioning the ANC as a political party that became unaccountable to voters:

…the ANC shifted decisively between 1953 and 1960 from a UK-type model of parliamentary democracy, with MPs elected by voters as individuals under their own names in local constituencies, …..[to one based on the Soviet influence on exiles] in which the electorate votes solely for a political party… and not any individual candidate.

The long-game?

There are those who argue that Ramaphosa was in the ANC during the time that State Capture unfolded and that he could have “done something”. One wonders whether, had spoken out before, would he be President now? Or would we have Dlamini-Zuma (2nd of Zuma’s 6 wives – or is it 7?) or a Gupta appointee like Ace Magashule, as our President? As it was, the horse-trading at the 2017 ANC conference (allowing Ramaphosa to “squeak in”) is well-known. This goes to the “rock-and-a-hard-place” argument. As well as to the “long-game” argument. Those “at the trough” do not want the continued gradual rooting out of corruption.

Ramaphosa inherited a rotten egg:  State Capture and abysmal corruption

Thanks to whistleblowers who have risked their lives and lost their careers (we salute you); the free press in South Africa; and the many investigative journalists at organizations like, shocking information has been uncovered as to how the “organs of state” were “cleaned out” by Zuma and the Guptas and how countless billions were siphoned off the State coffers.  (I literally can’t count the “10 or 11 figures before the decimal point”: R49,157,323,233.68.  And please – let’s not, in this uncountable figure, forget the 68c.) Bloomberg’s timeline shows the Gupta involvement.   Wikipedia defines State Capture: 

State capture is a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage.  The term was first used by the World Bank, around the year 2000, to describe the situation in certain central Asian countries making the transition from Soviet communism. Specifically, it was applied to situations where small corrupt groups used their influence over government officials to appropriate government decision-making in order to strengthen their own economic positions; these groups’ members would later become known as oligarchs.  Allegations of state capture have led to protests against the government in Bulgaria in 2013–2014 and in 2020-2021 and Romania in 2017, and have caused an ongoing controversy in South Africa beginning in 2016.

Photo illustration by Matt Chase

State Capture is also the focus of Shadow State – The Politics of State Capture by multiple authors and edited by Ivor Chipkin (Director of Government and Public Policy [GAPP] think-tank) and Mark Swilling (Professor in the School of Public Leadership, University of Stellenbosch). They show how State Owned Enterprises [SOEs] like Eskom, Transnet, SABC, SAA, SIU, etc, etc were `repurposed’; how public service appointees (SARS, Minister of Finance, etc. etc.) were directed/installed by the Guptas; and how a `shadow state’ was established which diverged from the country’s constitutional framework.

Richard Poplak  relates this argument directly to the events of 2 weeks ago: 

“These warnings [of targeting so-called “white monopoly capital” Ie the big malls/chains/ businesses/banks] represent the birth pangs of a Russian-style hyper-capitalist shadow economy, which threatens to become the real economy – a vision Zuma and his cabal in the State Security Agency hoped to initiate under his presidency.” 

Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s Gangster State 

For more on the criminality in the post-Zuma era read Pieter-Louis Myburgh‘s Gangster State which I am ashamed to admit sits on my bookshelf currently being read by osmosis! 

State Capture versus corruption

Chipkin in the GAPP report, Making Sense of State Capture, submitted to the Zondo Commission, argues that while corruption in South Africa enabled State Capture, State Capture and corruption are not the same thing.  The Daily Maverick Webinar, with Daily Maverick Associate Editor Marianne Thamm and Ivor Chipkin, is well worth watching. Chipkin argues that post 1994, the political players and administrative officials from fully fledged government structures of the so-called previous “independent countries” ie the Apartheid homelands or Bantustans (the most well-known being Transkei, Ciskei, and Bophuthatswana) were absorbed into the new national Government and that this had dire consequences for the long-term practice of patronage. 

When the ANC came into power in 1994, the party sought to integrate Bantustan officials and traditional leaders in efforts to stabilise the country ….  The project, allowing homeland officials to gain power over the distribution of senior positions in the public service, is South Africa’s greatest untold story and led to State Capture ….. In the homeland governments, things happened on the basis of personal connection. 

The Zondo Commission

Ramaphosa is sometimes even blamed for setting up the Zondo Commission (the public inquiry to investigate State Capture) which ironically was launched by Jacob Zuma at the beginning of 2018. Although the process is and has been, achingly slow, it has been conducted in full public view with complete transparency, broadcast daily on television. 

Response to initial email

This post started as an email reply to family members (and regular international guests) who wanted to check-in as to what was happening in South Africa.  I copied my reply to some local SAffers. Some responded saying “Please load this on your blog”.  You command I listen!   

And in closing: one of the recipients of my email sent this reply. I have his permission to quote him ( Thank you as always, Billy – I wrote above that “I avoid social media – with a few exceptions”.  You are one of the exceptions! 

Billy’s response:   

One thing that I think is quite instructive is to focus on what Cyril has actually achieved (as opposed to the many things he hasn’t done).

    • Most fundamentally, he managed to win at Nasrec. [2017 ANC conference] That was actually quite amazing, considering that Zuma and his faction were very much in charge. Have you ever seen a more nauseous face than Zuma’s at Nasrec? Can you imagine what horse trading must have been going on in the background to make it happen?
    • In order to do that, he had to first sit and suck it up for years as Zuma’s deputy. I certainly couldn’t have done that. Especially not if I was vastly wealthy and really didn’t have to. He must have really, really wanted the top job.
    • Magashule is suspended and facing criminal charges.
    • The seriously big fish is actually sitting in jail. How many people said it would never happen? For the wrong thing…but still. [Comment from Liz: Al Capone was caught on tax evasion]. He’s also facing the arm’s deal charges from way back when. Wonder what else is coming down the road at him? The reason he refused to appear before the ZC [Zondo Commission] is because he knows perfectly well there are mountain ranges of evidence against him and he didn’t want to have to deal with clever lawyers.
    • The Zondo Commission has rolled on and shone a very bright light in many of the very dark corners. Part of the general frustration at the lack of prosecutions is because of what we have learnt from the ZC. But in the background CR’s been ensuring that the NPA [National Prosecuting Authority]  and the SIU [Special Investigating Unit] etc are being beefed up. (He has neglected the security cluster – I don’t think he foresaw how devastating the RET [Radical Economic Transformation] faction  fightback would be. That was a serious oversight. But they have done their worst and we are still standing.)
    • Cyril appears to be stronger than ever within the ANC.

Where do we go from here? No idea – but I would definitely say CR plays a long game. A very, very long game, lasting years if necessary. He would never have gotten to be prez without being willing to do so.

Much food for thought!  

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