Anant Singh | July mayhem: How do we heal after the chaos?

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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

We have to acknowledge that the unrest occurred, and we now need to look to the future and try to find ways of making sure this doesn't happen again, writes Anant Singh.

Greetings from Tokyo,

For me being in Tokyo, is an honour and a privilege, especially to be part of the celebration of our country's Olympic successes, being led by women in the medal count. Especially Tatjana Schoenmaker, who set a world record in the 200m breaststroke, becoming the first South African woman to win an Olympic gold medal in 25 years. She also won the silver medal in the 100m breaststroke while Bianca Buitendag won a silver medal for surfing. We celebrate these women who brought honour to our country, as well as all the women of South Africa later this week on Women's Day. South African women are the anchors of our society.

At the opening ceremony at the National Stadium, I was proud to see our Rainbow Nation being represented by an amazing integrated and diverse group of athletes. While watching them, I reflected on the unrest and looting in Gauteng and my home province KwaZulu-Natal where it escalated into a race issue, threatening the very existence of our Rainbow Nation.

In the past few days, while in Tokyo, I have read many articles about the traumatic events in South Africa.

Collective responsibility to find solutions

Two prominent articles which appeared in newspapers distributed here in Tokyo struck me: one was from the Financial Times published on Sunday, and the other from the New York Times last week.

I felt that they were excellent, and I have taken the liberty to quote from each of them. I commend both writers, Joseph Cotterill and William Shoki, for their efforts in reporting and concisely delving into the issues. Reflecting on these articles, I felt compelled to write this piece.

As depressing and somewhat despairing these reports may be, it is a reality that we have to face and deal with as a nation. It is our collective responsibility to find solutions to mitigate falling deeper into this abyss.

"Thapelo Mohapi looks at the mangled and scorched scraps of what were once shacks and reflects quietly that, at 38, twice now have the flames of political violence in South Africa left him without a home. The first time, as a boy in the 1980s, Mohapi was given shelter by Indian neighbours in the Durban settlement of Phoenix when the brutal last days of apartheid engulfed the nearby black township where he lived. It was part of solidarity that would in time give rise to a multiracial democracy.

"The Indian community never said at any stage that you are not part of us," he says. The second time was the night of July 14. As riots and looting sparked by a power struggle in the ruling African National Congress swept heartland regions, destroyed businesses and left more than 300 dead, a fire burnt through the homes of Mohapi and hundreds of others in an informal settlement in Durban's Briardene suburb.

"The fire brigade couldn't reach it in time because of the unrest," Mohapi says. For now, he is living in a friend's car and in donated clothes…. Ordinary South Africans lost even more in the unrest. From below, their anger is growing.

"The ANC is rotten and it should be removed. It does not represent the ideals of Mandela," Mohapi says. Otherwise, he fears, "we are heading for disaster. We will have riots after riots." (Source: Joseph Cotteral, Financial Times).

Looking forward 

Over the past several weeks I've been thinking about, and trying to assess how I can meaningfully contribute to the process towards reconciliation and healing given the significant pain, insecurity, anguish and loss of life that has occurred in our beautiful land.

In the past, I've used the vehicle of film and narrative storytelling to do to do this, but I feel that given the urgency and the timing, that for now, I would like to share my feelings. While there have been many commentators and journalists who have criticised the events around the unrest and laid blame on many different possible causes, we have to acknowledge that these events have occurred, and we now need to look to the future and try to find ways of making sure this doesn't happen again.

READ | Joel Netshitenzhe: July mayhem: It was SA's citizens that were democracys defenders

Social cohesion and the ability for different ethnic groups to peacefully coexist should be natural, but social inequality and disparity in people's lives are huge factors that threaten our nation, especially given the economic conditions, the high unemployment rate and the human instinct to survive in a peaceful manner. We cannot allow for lawlessness and criminality from people in power, politicians, law enforcement personnel and those in other state organs, nor can the public at large try to take the law into their own hands.

Unfortunately, this dire situation was not managed well or handled efficiently by the authorities, so understandably, private citizenry needed to and did, come together to protect themselves and their property.

Our president has received enormous criticism for his government's handling of the situation, and I hope that a more positive roadmap will emerge as we, as a country, deal with the desperate state of affairs brought about by the ravages of Covid-19, and the resulting economic and social challenges, and endemic corruption that has been perpetuated.

As a result of the unrest, people were traumatised. Many were displaced and left homeless. For the first time in my memory, there was a threat to food security with no access to basic foodstuff due to the disruption of supply lines and shops closing.

In this unprecedented time, ordinary people stepped up to the plate and helped with the desperate situations that emerged and helped find solutions. We need to celebrate these loving and caring South Africans. They are the heroes of the day. I am firmly of the view that lawlessness cannot be condoned and perpetrators of crimes, including the much-publicised killings must be brought to book and face the full might of the law.

Attempt to drive wedge between Africans and Indians 

What is of concern to me is what is being described as the 'Phoenix Massacre'. This seems like a deliberate attempt to put a wedge between Africans and Indians as part of a political agenda.

While freedom of speech is a basic right of our democracy, the media must be alive to any agenda that is counter-productive to nation-building and the rule of law. All of this was exacerbated by the flurry of posts on social media platforms, some of which were designed to create dissent, while some were exaggerated to incite and instill fear. In some instances, it was difficult to determine which posts were fake and which were real. We have seen how dangerous this tool is, and the influence it had on politics in the United States under Donald Trump.

READ | Fear, social status, financial gain: Why do South Africans share fake news

Social media platforms have built algorithms into their systems to detect offensive content, including hate speech, racism, and the incitement of violence. We have to implement the same while protecting the freedom of speech.

Our country needs to go through a process of rejuvenation of morality. We need to especially tackle the damage that has been done through the propagation of 'greed is good' which has become engrained in the psychological mindset of some people.

Most people in our nation are honest, hardworking South Africans of all race groups, all of whom yearn for 'a better life'. Unfortunately, this has not been achieved in any meaningful way to impact most of our fellow citizens.

South Africa has potential to be the best

I believe that every South African, from all walks of life, be it those that are privileged to the middle class and the ordinary citizens, need to come together and contribute to the upliftment of our society in any way they can. Their contributions need not necessarily be financial only, but could also be the psychological support needed for people to change their thought processes and make a paradigm shift.

READ | Opinion: Deon Pretorius: How do we manage South Africa's 'culture of destruction'

South Africa's success on an international platform like the Olympic Games shows our potential to be the best. South Africa is a beautiful land with beautiful people. Our nation needs to come together to find solutions for economic equality and a prosperous future. We all have to work harder to achieve this.

"An uneasy calm has settled. How long it lasts is anyone's guess. Yet the past few weeks have conclusively dispelled many illusions about the country, none more so than the myth of South African exceptionalism — of a South Africa more peaceful than its African neighbours, more developed and with a future that bends inevitably toward good and triumph. The reality, as we await the next outbreak of violence, is much uglier." (Source: William Shoki New York Times)

Together, we will be strong! Together, we shall overcome!

- Anant Singh is a South African film producer.

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