Former South African President Thabo Mbeki recently launched a scathing criticism of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for its failure to address what he called the triple challenge of poverty, unemployment and inequality.
Mbeki, who led the party from 1997 to 2007, said the government appeared to have no plan to address these issues, warning that rising poverty and hardship, poor governance and growing lawlessness could see South Africa burst into its own version of “Arab country”. Spring”.
The “Arab Spring” uprisings that swept through North Africa and parts of the Middle East more than a decade ago led to the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Many of the protesters were young and educated and had been let down by the corruption and clientelism that only benefited the political and economic elites.
A common feature of these uprisings was that existing constitutional orders had become so delegitimized that they simply crumbled under the weight of social discord.
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Mbeki’s prophecy is sobering, especially a year after devastating riots in parts of the country in July 2021. While the plotters of what President Cyril Ramaphosa described as a failed insurgency remain at large, many South- Africans nervously await a rehearsal.
Political parties, trade unions, businesses, civil society groups all realize that South Africa is a pressure cooker. But young people showed little interest in organized politics. Their low voter turnout is a sign of this. We have the feeling that something must change quickly and radically. Otherwise, young people could explode with impatience and anger, a tsunami that even political parties will find difficult to contain.
Ramaphosa’s plan to avoid chaos
President Ramaphosa used a public platform to respond to Mbeki’s criticism almost a week later. Addressing the closing session of the ANC election conference in KwaZulu-Natal, he stressed that the government had a reform program to address these issues. He cited the heavy national development plan, the government’s official blueprint for achieving its long-term goals, and the ANC’s own 2019 election manifesto as “the blueprint”.
Some of the identified priorities have since been translated into the government’s economic reconstruction and recovery plan, which aims to change the asset and resource base of the economy by making the ownership structure more inclusive.
Tellingly, the president referred to these measures as “reforms,” language that invokes the idea of incremental change. But such initiatives seem remote and remote from what is needed.
What people want to see is a visible change in their daily lives and more imagination from their government to alleviate their difficulties. The monthly grant of 350 rand (about $20.72) to the unemployed during the COVID pandemic was a tangible response to the crisis that families facing starvation needed. Similar strengthened measures to deal with multiple crises are needed, and there is no time to waste.
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Something needs to be done urgently to address a host of major challenges, from the high cost of living to soaring fuel prices, to the inadequate provision of basic municipal services.
Bored young people, with limited opportunities for work and skill-building, are sucked into drug or alcohol abuse, petty crime or worse.
Given the picture I have painted, is an Arab Spring likely?
It is impossible to make a precise prediction, but two trajectories are plausible.
One is a repeat of the devastating unrest of last July. The state’s inability to respond decisively to the July unrest could encourage politically inspired anarchists to resort to violence again if they don’t get what they want. They have tested the waters and seen what is possible. And as people remain frustrated with their lives, the country could see a new outbreak of violence.
Another trajectory is one in which anarchy increases even more. Transnational organized crime networks and local gangs are becoming increasingly brazen. The police are overwhelmed and struggling with their own internal problems. This lack of respect for the law by criminals has the effect of eroding the legitimacy and authority of the State.
Extortion, protection rackets, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, if allowed to encroach unchecked, will make criminal networks an even greater destabilizing factor than political actors. A convergence of these elements – a South Africa where disgruntled elements engage in ongoing destabilization and collude with, or even unwittingly create space for criminal networks to run wild – does not bode well for a prosperous nation. .
Uprisings like those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were the result of explosive local conditions, triggered by a small spark. People railed against political systems they saw as authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.
South Africa is still a very different political space. The country is a noisy democracy with a free and open media, many dissenting voices, and insulting the incumbent government carries no overt punishment.
It could be a blessing in disguise that the country is perpetually in electoral mode. Local elections and national general elections are held every five years. Because they overlap, the country has an election every three years.
Between these events, political parties hold their own leadership races, which serve as an indicator of who is likely to occupy national office or the seat of local government. This ongoing extra- and intra-political competition serves as a pressure valve to absorb energy that might otherwise overflow.
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Political assassinations, especially at the local level, are a pernicious by-product of this endless electoral turnover. But the prospects of gaining office by outmaneuvering or teaming up with rivals are still attractive enough for the political classes.
This is not to deny that the destabilization is not widespread, something Ramaphosa referred to when he addressed the nation on broadcast media on Monday, July 25. Sabotage of electrical infrastructure, illegal hook-ups by community members, cable theft by organized criminals are not necessarily centrally orchestrated. Nevertheless, they delegitimize the authority of the central state.
Already, many young people are engaging in protest actions. So-called service delivery protests are part of the South African experience: for now, they remain largely localized and driven by single issues. Just five years ago, student protests through the #FeesMustFall movement saw nationwide activism. The national mood changed; the policy has changed. Some of these young activists are now in parliament, local government and other spaces.
But they represent a small minority. There is a vast, restless sea of young people with unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. They wake up to a life of poverty, unemployment, boredom. They see little change and perceive the state as indifferent to their plight.
Yet these same young people are energetic, connected via social media and bursting out to claim their space. Some are blessed with opportunities, but for those from poor families, there is little to persuade them that their lives are about to get better. Therein lies the challenge to political parties and the state.