Last month, South Africa grabbed world headlines when it experienced a wave of violent unrest and lootings after the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. Although the violence had its provenance via the arrest of the former president, it soon became crystal-clear that this was more than what meets the eye – it became apparent that black South Africans have been failed by the post-apartheid era in which [unchecked] neoliberal capitalism (with its attendant consumerism/hedonism) has created the most unequal country in the world.
The compromise to birth an inclusive strand of democracy made 27 years ago was promising, but it has always been fragile. The riots and lootings orchestrated in the full glare of the world are an attestation to this. During the unrest in July – which the government arrogantly and ignorantly referred to as “anarchy” and “insurrection” – hundreds of businesses, shopping malls, mega-stores, liquor stores, medical facilities, factories, communication infrastructure, and logistics hubs were “plundered” and burned amidst bitter protests/riots.
Food, medical supplies, and luxurious consumer goods such as high-end televisions were looted during the unrest. It was a conflation of targeted sabotage in the wake of Zuma’s incarceration, criminal elements maximizing opportunities, and (this is the most important factor) untamed anger towards the post-apartheid political economy that has pushed the majority of blacks to the fringes of capitalism. Anger directed towards white monopoly. Anger towards exclusion from the realization of material desires/lifestyles. It is as regrettable as it is tragic.
With the violence ostensibly emanating from the #FreeJacobZuma campaign, at its core, it reveals the deep contradictions rampant in modern South African society. Although it can be said that the more targeted approaches of sabotage during the riots and lootings were engineered by pro-Zuma elements within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) who supported the #FreeJacobZuma campaign, it is remiss not to picture this in the wider context – a frustrated citizenry under the throes of inequality, dealing with decades of trauma and unhealed wounds.
The riots and lootings portray the convergence of “anger, material desire, exclusion, and formality” in creating a [Southern African] society that perpetually teeters on the precipice of unrestrained violence – with such violence being a direct threat to the interests of private capital mostly owned by whites and a select black elite that has been co-opted into the dominant neoliberal superstructure. And it is important to note that South Africa largely mirrors the rest of Southern Africa and Africa at large. Shared histories, realities, and all.
Scarred with a history of morbid racial violence, South Africa has attempted to navigate its way towards inclusiveness but it is always derailed by black elites at the helm of the ANC who, in collusion with white monopoly, have privatized the country for their aggrandizement. And for staying abreast with the individualistic desires of material wealth – the hallmark of neoliberal capitalism. As such, corruption and state capture are entrenched, endemic features of the South African political economy. Since coming to power in 1994, the ANC has been spineless in dealing with the vast inequalities in the country; inequalities that take a racial and class-partisan nature.
Instead, the ANC neoliberals [with the collusion of global private capital] have added to their private fortunes while social services have crumbled. If one is to combine Zuma’s and Ramaphosa’s corruption, the inequality in South Africa is laid bare. The democracy envisaged in 1994 has done little to change the material realities of black South Africans. The latter are excluded from this democratic style – a form of bourgeois liberal democracy that serves private capital over the sanctity of human life and dignity.
And, of course, one does not need to look farther than the intransigence exuded by the owners of private capital when it comes to private property rights (which are guarded by the Constitution in a country where the majority black population is landless). These capitalist contradictions have resulted in the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer, making South Africa the most unequal country in the world. In the absence of firm leadership (it is said that Cyril Ramaphosa “dances on eggs”), the majority of black South Africans have to deal with abject poverty head-on. This negates all the liberation values and principles that the ANC triumphantly and defiantly espoused back then.
South Africa has always been an “unsettled” country that often experiences “heightened moments” as tempers flare along racial, class, ethnic and xenophobic fault-lines. It is a country that, when these heightened moments materialize, it starts to bleed. But when this bleeding is reported to the rest of the world especially by global mainstream media and more so the ephemeral social media, it is devoid of historical context and nuances that have morphed South Africa into what it is today. And how that effectively mirrors the rest of Southern Africa and Africa at large. One cannot fail to question the looting of a high-end smart television from shopping malls only to be taken to incendiary immiseration. That is when arguments around commodity fetishism in a sea of poverty surface. And with these protests, state security (the police and the armed forces) ultimately quells the violence to create stability so that the status quo is maintained for the interests of private capital to remain unharmed.
The debilitating material conditions in South Africa are constantly aggravated by the “never-ending ANC factional drama.” In the context of insane inequalities and perennial poverty, the violence in the South should not be seen as a “coup” or “anarchy/insurrection” as the ANC leadership postulated. But they should be viewed more as a pointer towards the failings of African post-colonial society. And the indispensable need to “return to the source” (ditto Amilcar Cabral) where egalitarian principles were prevalent. The lootings of luxurious consumer goods speak volumes about the ills of neoliberal capitalism as it ravages Africa – desired material lifestyles and perceptions of individual success regarding material wealth/possessions. In an era where commodity fetishism reigns supreme, genuine anger caused by poverty and a narcissistic desire for material possessions combine to create a hotbed of violence after violence. The only way to be heard in an exclusionary “democratic” base and superstructure is to discard all forms of peaceful protests.
With the COVID-19 pandemic decimating lives in South Africa, the unrest was a reminder that the government need not deviate from the agenda to bridge income inequality gaps while creating a society that upholds participatory democracy in a sacrosanct manner. The Constitution and all other statutes, the state security, and the leadership must not act in a manner that protects the interests of private capital while the rest of the majority poor languish in untold poverty, without access to basic social amenities. Arguments around exceptionalism also have to be thrown around – where South Africa assumes it is different from other African countries because of how private capital has flourished there, creating developed services and infrastructure (although these are exclusionary for the poor).
In a time where neoliberal capitalism dictates the “commodification of human progress and where the individual and his/her material desires are increasingly supreme,” it is clear that Africans are caught between a rock and a hard place in how they relate with such modernity. While fighting for access to water and sanitation, one also desires the latest television, smartphone, refrigerator, microwave, gaming consoles, car, the supermarket cake, the elusive pizza, and so on. Because of systemic poverty, black South Africans do not have access to these material possessions – they are bombarded with endless materialism yet do not have the means to acquire such.
Such a fetish for material/consumer goods (in this context of well-organized poverty) can be described as “collective envy” and it is based on individual desires that poor people see the rich and powerful ones enjoying. Much to the frustration of private capital, this explains why, when there are violent protests resulting in the breakdown of the “rule of law,” people resort to looting and arson. Commodities now define lifestyle aspirations. And this is due to what the [bourgeois] leaders and private capital preach, wittingly and unwittingly.
Because the interests of the owners of private capital must remain undisturbed (Karl Marx on the continuous flow of capitalist production and the alienation of the worker) the establishment – the government, business leaders, and state security – begin to push a “counter populist narrative” that rides on the “respect for private property” and the [unavoidable] “loss of jobs.” And because of the spontaneous nature of these riots due to high emotions, such struggles are not properly defined and do not have counter-ideologies or narratives bordering on counter-hegemonies. These struggles – caught between poverty frustrations and commodity fetishism – are easily crushed by the state and private capital.
It thus becomes easy to restore that false sense of stability for private capital to perpetuate inequality while the root causes of the violence – poverty, inequality, exclusion, the pandemic – remain unaddressed. It calls for South Africans to immediately tackle their past traumas and wounds candidly and objectively with a view towards creating an inclusive society where progressive ideologies take center stage. These struggles must also be defined for the benefit of future generations.
South Africa, and the rest of Southern Africa, need to face their past history in order to redress the present and the future. South Africa needs to challenge the contentious issue of inequality which is inextricable from race and class. And at the same time, struggles must be properly defined as these traumas are addressed so that Africans are not just passive victims of [neoliberal] commodity fetishism.
These conversations must involve everyone and require robust leadership to create a conducive political atmosphere of genuine, participatory democracy aimed to promote egalitarianism. It all demands honesty and not conflating private capital with the state.