#UnrestSA: 'Political paralysis' at heart of violence and looting, experts say

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President Cyril Ramaphosa.
President Cyril Ramaphosa.
OJ Koloti/Gallo Images
  • A 'political paralysis' has been cited by experts as the cause of the recent unrest.
  • Academics say government's failures have led to a widening poverty gap.
  • An overhaul of the state could be needed to save South Africa from future unrest.

Preventing further unrest will require an overhaul of government systems, experts believe.  

During a panel discussion facilitated by Tshikululu Social Investment, experts and academics unpacked the causes of the recent unrest, which saw shops, businesses and trucks looted and torched in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Over 300 people lost their lives.

At the heart of the unrest is a social gap, said academic and activist Khaya Sithole. He unpacked how poverty disproportionately affects South Africa's black population, saying the country's high poverty and unemployment rates have been a crisis in the making for some time.

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

He attributed much of the lack of social development and empowerment to "political paralysis", saying that infighting in the ruling party had provided a trigger point for the unrest. However, he added, much of the violence and looting was driven by members of society feeling excluded, disenfranchised and angry.

"What do we think is going to happen in a country where poverty persists?" he asked.

Author and development economist Ayanbonga Cawe added that low levels of protest had been happening across the country for some time. However, the risk of participating in the looting had been minimised due to the scale of the protest action.

Cawe also cautioned that the unrest was not unique to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, saying it could also flare up in other parts of the country.

"ANC factions created a sequence of events," he said.

"But this is something that could rise up anywhere. We need to address maladministration."

PODCAST | The Story: Why did SA's security agencies fail to avert the looting chaos?

Gift of the Givers founder Dr Imtiaz Sooliman agreed that service delivery was a stumbling block for the government, saying it was "paralysed by its systems" in responding to emergencies.

Sooliman explained that the recent unrest was a symptom of the government's failure to intervene in crisis areas efficiently.

He cited examples of failures, such as a lack of water provision to Eastern Cape communities affected by drought, due to the government failing to implement short-term responses.

"We have sunk 420 boreholes in 24 months," he said.

"There is no sense of urgency. The government is paralysed by their own systems. Bureaucracy makes them totally inefficient," he said.

OPINION | Nombulelo Shange and Ntando Sindane: If poverty not eradicated, looting will happen again

Sooliman said the government needed to carry out an audit of infrastructure and complete maintenance where necessary, and develop a plan and fund to deal with disasters.

Cawe added that the government also needed to transform the economy by focusing on moving production to townships and stimulating informal economies.

SEE | #UnrestSA: Alleged looters arrested as police, soldiers raid Nguni Hostel in Vosloosrus

But Sithole added that civil society would have a large role to play in ensuring transformation in the public sector. He warned that civil society might "have to litigate government into doing its job", citing examples of civil action around ARV rollout and pit toilets at schools as ways society had compelled the authorities to perform their duties.

"The state still believes it did the public a favour by liberating them and that they are indebted to it. Civil society has come a long way in narrowing that accountability gap, but there is still a way to go," he said.


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