Sociopolitical Watch

Can municipal elections save SA from a racial conflict?


“South African society has not been this saturated with anger and protest since the late 1980s. The previous 12 months have witnessed a decisive shift in the country’s political consciousness.”

The quote above comes from an article last week on The Conversation website by Leon Schreiber, research specialist for Innovations for Successful Societies at Princeton University.

In the same article, under the telling headline “South Africans need to fight for change on the streets, and through the ballot”, Schreiber writes that “with all of its historical complexities, there is no escaping the fact that a government which has had an overwhelming electoral mandate for the past two decades bears ultimate responsibility for the failures which have so inflamed South Africans’ collective passions.”

But he also warned that “voters might make a misdiagnosis. They may overlook the structural causes and instead place the blame for their frustrations on minorities and the symptoms of South Africa’s current malaise, such as an unequal education system and persistent racism.”

And in this election year it is clearly deemed a viable strategy for the ANC to feed this “misdiagnosis” by constantly and increasingly playing the race card in the blame game – making whites the scapegoats and whipping boys for just about every possible ill in South African society, from education to the economy, to racism and now even protests.

Last week alone the ANC Youth League claimed that “white supremacists” are behind the #FeesMustFall protests and are funding violent protest action. Earlier in the month Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who is also the secretary general of the ANC’s alliance partner, the South African Communist Party, laid a formal complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) to investigate the DA as a “breeding ground” for racists.

The ANC in the Western Cape, where the party is in the opposition in the provincial legislature, took the SACP call even a step further. In a statement last week it said it is “instructing the DA and Patricia De Lille to put all its white members under intense scrutiny, their histories, their racist tendencies and vitriol, how they treat their black counterparts and other progressive white people …”

It is increasingly becoming clear that white people are being targeted as scapegoats for socio-economic and -political problems, while general discontent with economic hardships and problems with service delivery, inequality perceptions, unemployment and more are on the rise.

SAHRC report

In a recent article we argued that on “the front of race relations tensions are escalating. There is an urgent need to cool down temperatures. The country is in serious danger that an incident caused by irresponsible individuals or groups could tip the country into a highly destructive racial conflict.”

In the meantime, the SAHRC has reported that its data suggest that South Africans are becoming more racist.

Following a racially turbulent start to 2016, the SAHRC said it would no longer make any public statements about investigations into racism in the country, as it had received a large number of complaints within the first two weeks of January.

A glimpse into the future

Schreiber’s analysis of the South African situation indicates how critically important the process and outcome of this year’s local government elections will be for South Africa’s future.

If the ANC is not pegged back in the elections the result will “signal that citizens have greater faith in protest to resolve their grievances, than in the ballot box.

“Such an outcome would be in line with the sentiment expressed by some #FeesMustFall protesters that violence is the only language government understands.

"This is dangerous nonsense.

“In a democracy, the language best understood by any political party is the language of voting. Failing to acknowledge this basic fact would simply leave the current corrupted societal structure in place.

“It would also undermine the country’s democracy. Having rejected the option of fostering change through the ballot box, the only option open to an already disillusioned society would be escalating violence.

“History has repeatedly shown that vocal protests by an engaged citizenry against societal injustice, combined with voters who use the ballot box to hold their government responsible for such injustice, is the recipe for a vibrant, consolidating democracy.

“But angry protests against injustice, combined with a failure to hold accountable the same government that maintains injustice, pose an existential threat to any democracy. “The 2016 local elections will begin to reveal which future South Africa has chosen.”

by Piet Coetzer

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