Stability Watch

Danger of widespread South African unrest escalating

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Amid large-scale, often violent, protests on South African university campuses, the danger of much wider civil unrest is escalating almost unnoticed.

While scenes on at least one campus early last week were described as resembling a war zone, a highly disruptive service delivery protest in Langa, Cape Town, hardly made the news. It saw a major traffic arterial closed and Metrorail infrastructure vandalised, causing major delays for train commuters.

And the Langa protest is far from being an isolated incident. There is presently a proliferation of countrywide protests, for various reasons, speaking of a deep-seated and widespread atmosphere of discontent in the South African society.

Besides #FeesMustFall, other, often destructive, protests in recent weeks on campuses across the country and attacks on schools in especially Limpopo province continue.

Recent protests similar to the one at Langa, not only causing disruption but also leading to violent clashes with police and damage to infrastucture, occurred among others in Birch Acres (Ekurhuleni), Cosmo City (Johannesburg), Randfontein, Westonaria, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, Mamelodi, Nellmapius and Pienaarspoort (Tshwane) and in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha and Elsies River and Johannesburg’s Westbury and Bosmont.

Reasons put forward by communities for the protests vary widely, from ironically lack of schools, clinics and libraries to provision, or rather the lack of, water, electricity, and housing, over high local crime rates, gang activities, evictions of people illegally occupying vacant municipal land, and unpopular school rules.

Political violence

The politically inspired violence, much of it linked to ANC factionalism, during the local government election period led to several deaths and also still complicates the scene.

In KwaZulu-Natal police arrested 42 people after fatal shooting battles between ANC and SACP members.

Other political factors that contributed to unrest in recent times included one ANC faction marching to the party’s Johannesburg headquarters, Luthuli House, while other factions were awaiting them to “defend” it.

Future prospects

At the time of writing all the signs were there that the unrest on university campuses was set to intensify rather than abate. It came after Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande seemed to have dropped the responsibility of dealing with the dispute over university fees squarely into the lap of university administrations.

Then there are accusations that in the municipalities it lost in the August elections, the ANC has embarked on a campaign to encourage illegal land invasion. Such incidents have proven over time to be highly volatile.

In an article last week on The Conversation website, Suellen Shay, dean and associate professor at the University of Cape Town wrote: “There is such a groundswell of unhappiness among students. It started long before last year’s #feesmustfall movement and goes back to the #Rhodesmustfall protests that saw a statue of Cecil John Rhodes removed from UCT’s campus. There are all these issues, of inequality, of decolonisation.

“A significant proportion of the ‘born free’ generation – those who were born in or after 1994 – has had it. They’re fed up on all fronts. The state, university management. We’ve left too many things for too long. It’s viewed as us doing too little, too late. Now we have a crisis.”

This “fed up factor” does not seem to be restricted to the ‘born free’ generation or just students.

People are running out of patience for the better life they were promised more than two decades ago. This impatience becomes inflamed by a wide-ranging narrative of corruption and huge spending to keep underperforming state-owned enterprises afloat while some of them fail communities in the service delivery they are tasked with.

The mere fact that the leadership of parliament feels the need to implement severe, even draconian, security measures, including bulletproof glass, to separate the public from MPs, speaks to an elite feeling the dangers of a threatening revolution.

The biggest danger is that while, in the words of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the government is at war with itself, there are no signs of plans to defuse the dangerous climate of discontent.

by Piet Coetzer

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