South Africa's Civil War Option

2015-02-06 16:32

Umkhonto WeSizwe flag (CityPress)

There is something deeply troubling about highly-intelligent, rational, and well respected people contemplating the benefits of civil war. I have observed this at least twice in as many days on my Facebook newsfeed. While certainly not representative of a national mood – or, at least, I hope not – that many of my black friends can express this opinion is nothing short of jarring.

The argument that is usually made runs along these lines: the political settlement that South Africa reached in 1994 was partially successful. While ensuring formal equality between the races, genders, and sexes, structural economic disparities have been maintained in the status quo. This has meant that whites have, by and large, remain privileged within the new South Africa. It has afforded them isolation; a realm in which nothing needs to change, no integration needs to occur, and reconciliation is a nonstarter.

The argument is compelling. While black South Africans have experienced huge upliftment since 1994, the pace of transformation and spread of wealth is less than desirable. Black people, and black women in particular, remain the most systemically vulnerable population grouping. And, ironically, they bear the cost of slow redress.

While it may be easy to blame white South Africans for their recalcitrance, a good portion of blame must also be heaped onto our new black political elite. Apart from the ANC’s cooption and embedding within a system that benefits white capital, the government’s failings and self-interested hollowing out of the state only make matters worse. The failure to transform and the incompetence to deliver is a plague on both their houses.

But, the romanticising of the civil war option speaks certain hard truths. It illustrates the sense of frustration that many black citizens feel: the political project that should have benefitted them seems to benefit their former oppressors. It also proves to be highly emotive: the streets awash with blood providing the outlet for so much pain and suffering. And it is a useful political gimmick: that through, often senseless violence, political Valhalla would be achieved.

This is in spite of the fact that numerous examples exist to tell us otherwise. Somalia, Sierre Leone, Afghanistan, and Liberia to name but a few. South Africans are often guilty of gross exceptionalism. Our transition, for example, is branded as being our unique miracle. That kind of thinking, as the Americans demonstrate, is dangerous when it informs misplaced swagger and self-belief. It is equally dangerous, of not more so, when serious people start applying that faulty logic to the spoils of war. Yes, things do need to change. But bloodshed is almost never the answer.

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