The real cost of austerity and deprivation on SA’s poor

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Dr Pixley Ka Seme street in Durban strewn with dirt and filth caused after days of looting.
Dr Pixley Ka Seme street in Durban strewn with dirt and filth caused after days of looting.
Rajesh Jantilal/AFP


In the wake of former president Jacob Zuma’s 15-month contempt of court incarceration in Escourt in KwaZulu-Natal, scores of people wantonly blockaded highways, burning trucks and descended onto shopping centres with the sole purpose of looting and inflicting arson attacks.

For many, this pillaging was well-orchestrated to undermine the rule of law using Zuma’s arrest as a ruse. It is inconceivable that the SA Police Service did not anticipate the outbreak of this violence. In fact, Police Minister Bheki Cele expressed concern of the impending havoc in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng but it is not immediately clear if the police indeed had a plan to contain the economic sabotage and maintain the rule of law. President Cyril Ramaphosa swiftly deployed the army to reinforce the police efforts to contain the anarchy and restore law and order.

While the cost of the anarchy is still being counted, it is clear the inviolability of our social fabric which has been harnessed over many years stands at a brink. The phenomenon of ethnic chauvinism and mobilisation is clearly evident in the intensity of violence in certain areas in particular KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Of course sympathisers of the so-called radical economic transformation forces might want to instigate in other areas as an obfuscation of the real intent.

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In the end, the progress on the quest for nation building, common nationhood, patriotism and social cohesion will be damaged and reversed in dangerous ways. The death toll is being counted and arrests are increasing.

Equally important, the economic cost is incalculable in terms of material, financial losses and jobs, and more so the reputation of South Africa as an investment destination, particularly at a time the country is grappling with attracting foreign investment to propel post-Covid-19 economic recovery.

Many will agree that the sentencing of Zuma ostensibly precipitated the unrest but it is also evident that the arrest provided a convenient excuse for fuelling a counter-revolution by desperate elements many of whom are fugitives from justice.

The sinister forces fuelling the anarchy need to be unmasked. The coalition of the fugitives from justice – the corrupt goons – is preying on the desperation of the majority through subterfuge and diversion hoping to escape the long arm of the law.

However, for some the crisis presents an opportunity for a naked looting spree. Alas, all these are acts of criminality that must be rooted out but the roots run deep.

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On a broader level, it is patently clear that what we have witnessed – both its scale and intensity – is a manifestation of a much deeper crisis. There are many interlocking realities that together form the fundamental basis of the deeper malaise plaguing this country.

For simplicity and clarity’s sake, there are two fundamental problems worth highlighting that constitute the root causes of the unrest:

Firstly, the failure to overcome and reverse the legacy of colonialism and apartheid. This failure obtains in the inability to transform the economy to serve the majority population. The prevailing economic system continues to lock the majority, in particular the young people, outside thus subjecting them to grinding poverty.

Not only did government fail to engender balanced economic development, it also failed to direct the private sector to invest in diversification and beneficiation in order to broaden economic participation.

In addition, the embrace of neoliberal economic policy packages deepened the crisis even further by liberalisation that suffocated local industries thus destroying the industrial capacity leading to massive job losses in the post-apartheid situation.

More recently the neoliberal austerity cut of social spending, the consequence of which is the state’s inability to discharge its most basic functions.

For instance, in the ongoing skirmishes the police are clearly and hopelessly outnumbered by the hordes of looters. This is because the ratio of police to population is a complete joke. The confluence of these realities produced and reproduced a large army of the indigent, unemployed and socially vulnerable population. The extent of economic exclusion, social marginalisation and relative deprivation provide a breeding ground for discontentment that is a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode.

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Secondly, the depth of depravity manifested in the governance decay and corruption erodes public confidence and breeds public anger. If the political and business elites can shamelessly steal and abuse the public office with absolute impunity then, what stops the desperate poor – the underclass – from looting? Who will have the moral authority to appeal to or tell them to stop?

Wicked politicians and business elites have derailed this by their naked acts of corruption thus robbing the people of hope for social progress and economic justice.

Yes, the economic choices have locked the majority outside, trapping them in grinding poverty and joblessness. But corruption robs the people of any hope of overcoming their current situation. None is more dangerous and unpredictable as a people without hope!

Perpetuating austerity measures, exclusion and depravity of the poor condemns the majority to misery.

This is untenable. The nation-building and democratic consolidation cannot survive under these conditions. The country needs to return to a people-centred, people-driven process of fundamental change of the economic system to serve the poor!

This situation needs less political ambivalence and more bold and decisive actions to restore calm and continue to act swiftly against corruption. Let us use order to defeat disorder and calm to defeat agitation.

Fundamentally, only structural economic transformation provides an antidote to the discontentment and holds the potential for harnessing hope and agency for the people to defend the democratic gains.

Sonwabile Ngxiza is the SA Communist Party Western Cape first deputy provincial secretary. He writes in his personal capacity


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