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Violence in South Africa: an uprising of elites

Democracies are tested all the time: As severe as the violence was, it doesn’t mean SA’s democracy is in deep danger – Steven Friedman.
Trucks and business were looted and burnt during recent riots in South Africa. EPA-EFE/Stringer

From time to time, South Africa is rudely reminded that its past continues to make its present and future difficult. It does not always recognise this reality when it sees it.

The latest – and most shocking – reminder is the violence which followed the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. The mayhem devastated KwaZulu-Natal, the home of Zuma and his faction of the African National Congress (ANC), and damaged Gauteng, the economic heartland which also houses hostels in which working migrants from KwaZulu-Natal live.

The violence was seen as a new threat to the democracy established in 1994. But, while it was severe, it was a symptom of a past the country has yet to face, not a future it did not see coming. Even the one aspect which was new – the scale of violence in KwaZulu-Natal – was a product of realities which have been evident for years.

Destructive violence is frightening. In South Africa, it is even more alarming because its middle class, which monopolises the debate, assumes that it is only a matter of time before the country is engulfed in conflict. This makes it important to point out that, as severe as the violence was, it does not mean that the country’s democracy is in deep danger.

The South African mainstream, which expected democracy to usher in a perfect country and is repeatedly angered that it didn’t, ignores a core reality – that democracies are tested all the time. For people who like power – who exist in all societies and at all times – there is nothing natural or necessary about democracy. It forces them to obey rules they would rather ignore, listen to voices they would rather not hear, and allow others to take decisions they would prefer to take.

This means that there is nothing fatal about democracy being tested – it always is.

The question is whether it passes the test. The violence did test democracy. Whether President Cyril Ramaphosa is right that it was a failed insurrection is open to debate. But the violence was aimed at ensuring that democracy did not work. Democracy survived the assault. Whether this test strengthens it depends on whether the issues which caused the violence are addressed. And that depends on understanding what the test was.

Elite uprising

The violence has been widely seen as an expression of anger and frustration by people living in poverty, which has been much worsened in South Africa by the impact of COVID-19. But there was no revolt of the poor – it was an assault on democracy by elites.

The KwaZulu-Natal violence was frighteningly new because much of it did not follow the familiar pattern of conflict in South Africa and other countries. While there was looting, a common response to conflict by people living in poverty, there was also an assault on infrastructure, destruction of businesses and the “disappearance” of large stocks of bullets. None of this squares with what we might expect people fighting poverty to do during a conflict.

Nor was the violence a popular uprising. There were no large public demonstrations. The scale of the KwaZulu-Natal violence was huge but you don’t need many people to set fire to electricity installations or factories. The damage could have been done with minimal public support and almost certainly was. This was an uprising of elites, not of the people, although some joined the looting as we would expect people in poverty to do.

Ironically, the claims that this was about poverty or the COVID-19 lockdown blame the people for something the elites did.

But which elites? It will take a while before we know exactly what happened. But there are two elements in reports of the violence which suggest that it was a product of realities which have been evident to researchers for years.

First, although South Africa’s democracy is the product of a negotiated settlement, it followed armed conflict between the minority government and the forces fighting for majority rule. This makes the country another example of what some academics call “war transitions”: change from one political system to another where there are armed people on both sides of the divide.

In these cases, the textbook idea that only the state uses violence and does this within rules which are clear to all does not apply. Some people still have weapons and armed networks, whether they are inside or outside the government, and are not necessarily bound by the rules.

Unsettling reality

This has been a South African reality since 1994. It shows in constant factional battles between state intelligence operatives, in divisions between ex-combatants in the fight against apartheid, in security companies and criminal gangs whose members bore arms before 1994.

Their political loyalties may lie with members of the faction, not the governing party, let alone the state. Their networks may be devoted not only to a common political goal but also to gaining wealth and economic influence. This has made keeping order far more difficult. It can also make creating disorder easier.

The second is that local councillors allegedly played an important role in the violence. This too would reflect a long-standing reality.

Attention to corruption in South Africa focuses on national government, but local and regional networks devoted to getting richer at public expense are far more deep-rooted.

There is a clear link between them and violence – KwaZulu-Natal in particular has seen repeated killings of councillors or local officials who tried to resist corruption.

Both the people under arms and the local networks had ample reason to mobilise their power for harm – Zuma’s imprisonment may well have signalled that power had shifted in ways which threatened the survival of the networks. They may not have been trying an insurrection, which means they were trying to seize power. But they were doing whatever they could to ensure that their networks survived.

Unfinished business

So, while the scale of the violence may have been new, its origins are not. They are deeply embedded in South Africa’s unfinished business, its inability to create a single source of public order or to change an economic balance of power which ensures that ambitious people with the means to destroy see their networks as the only route to wealth.

The violence wreaked its damage because South Africa’s journey to democracy remains incomplete.

It sends a sharp message that the country must look its past far more squarely in the eye and find ways to change it before it can be confident about avoiding more of what happened in KwaZulu-Natal.The Conversation

Steven Friedman, Professor of Political Studies, University of Johannesburg

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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According to the author this violence is deeply imbedded in South Africa’s unfinished business, its inability to create a single source of public order or to change an economic balance of power.

I tend to disagree:

The government of the day is so intent on stealing the public purse that they prefer no public order.

Their agenda to disarm law abiding citizens right to protect themselves against violent grab of economic power clarifies disarmement and violence is supported by government. The government of the day is nothing but a criminal mafia.

Government has abdicated it’s responsibility totally to the citizenry. Citizenry, in the current space of no social contract, will take up arms (Legal or illegal arms) to protect the little economic power that they do have.

Citizens also now realize the government brings no return on tax money spent. The tax revolt will further increase and the future is one of no government as the people living between the borders of this country has to pay for duplicate services anyway. Just cancel the government.

Stop paying tax, then you’ll see some action…

@Liyabona excellent comment.

I would further add that, the future is created by present day decisions and thus the governing party is responsible for both reconciling the past trauma and also not addressing their failures in present day governance.

To this point I disagree with Professor Steven Friedman, the citizens have looked at the past Square in the eyes, they have elected their own to address the issues and to create a better future. This past violence was a warning shot by the elites who are loosing power, they chant; shout and destroy to attain power illegally, for these bad actors they would rather have 100% of nothing than share in the spoils of a growing economy that benefits all.

Modern democracy’s greatest flaw is the election process, it ignores the plight of the average man by simply stating majority rule, hence we have a country with pockets of excellence.

A solution to this is decentralise power by allowing for electioneering to take place in our neighborhoods where we vote for one another in groups no more than 19 people, this is followed by the elected gathering in groups of 19 and electing again and again until we reach nationals were 9 chosen given the titles of Governing Councillor. Their purpose is to hold the ministers, law makers and public servants accountable, whilst ensuring the plight of the common man is heard and prospering future is created.

PurgeCoin, an interesting suggestion. It’s been bothering me for a while now that ‘democracy’ is anything but democratic. You get one stab at it once every 4 years, when you bring out your vote (in SA for a party and not even for a person that you can hold accountable). After that your opinion is never sought, or considered. With one cross, that took you less than 5 seconds to make, you have handed over your life to a politician, who makes rules, regulations and laws that will determine the quality of life you will live, without having to ask for your opinion again. It gets worse when you realise that you pay taxes so that the very same politicians can set up state machinery and use state employees to force you to do what they have decided. For those who don’t agree, ask yourself this: how many times did a ward councilor ask your opinion? How many times did a MP ask your opinion? If the answer is never, then how can we even talk about democracy? Even in the most democratic country in the world, it is exactly the same, confirming that ‘democracy’ was never meant to be democratic at all. It is one of those things that sound good, but doesn’t work.

@Batman,Fantastic comment.
You have pointed out the many flaw of so called voting and what it really means. As citizens of the world we have been sold a lie, we believe the lie and so we suffer.

Ja Stevie — Marxist as always.
Nothing of real importance happened at all ne and everything will still be ok ne.
You sir are SERIOUSLY misguided.

I agree Casper1. Friedman is leftist.

I prefer to study the articles of Moeletsi Mbeki instead, if I want to gain insight into (black) SA politics.

SA’s “past continues to make its present and future difficult” 100% correct, the ramifications of the corruption, theft and mismanagement of Zumas tenure is now evident. ANCs internal squabbles have left Luthuli house and are now on the steets.

Have I understood your final paragraph’s sharp message? You want our country to change its past?

Yes I read that too : I think the poor chap is over the hill : The country must find ways to change its past !!! That’s a classic.
Unfortunately like the Scots hate the English and the Welsh hate them both ,our various tribes will remain Tribal enemies until one has wiped out the rest : We still have so called Tribal kings and Queens : A complicated African shambles ,but not to worry ,we can blame apartheid for the next century or so.

In 30 years time the present will be the past and the past will then be as bad as the present past, just a lot worse. Or something like that.

I was wondering where have all the intelligent people gone. After reading this vacuous proffering I still wonder, but now I scratch my head at the same time.

Steven Friedman trying to dish out the Prozac. Reality : Gangster State.

Interesting view points, but it’s all couched in vague speculation and generalised gossip, which is not helpful to man or beast.

What exactly is this “unfinished business from the past”? And more importantly, what is Friedman’s solution to this??

Otherwise, just another “clickbait” article.

Friedman is just too leftist blinkered to be pragmatic in his discourse.

Unfinished business 27 years later? I can believe it. Our problem (one of them) is our leadership has their heads stuck in the exile classrooms of the 60’s.

Not even Russia or China practice communisms or even call each other “comrades”, but no we soldier on like some dumb kids’ toy stuck in a corner.

It is time the 30-something year olds take over the ANC from the struggle fossils. (I am of the fossil age)

I suspect even the 30-somethings would be a lost cause. They have been thoroughly and selectively brainwashed with the convenient truths (woke-style). The lies will live.

‘Egghead’ academics like Steven Friedman are so detached from reality as to make their opinions worthless. Were Steven to run a labour intensive business for his livelihood he would have to change his ideas very rapidly. The idea that ‘ivory tower’ professors are the country’s intelligentsia is so far from the truth. They live in a sheltered bubble of unreality.

The political elite, have and continue to be, the country’s mass looters. Their example has merely been replicated by the populace they lead.

As for our ‘intelligence’ agencies…well if their IQ is any indication of the value of the intel they could provide, I wouldn’t be able to take them seriously either!

I was taught that an elite person is someone who has risen to prominence through acts that most people respect and admire.

Calling gangsters elite is really annoying. Decent South Africans do not respect these people.

The destruction is pure intimidation aimed at extracting some economic benefit. This has been going on for many years and is undermining our economy. Any government that is unable to protect it’s economy and people from this anarchy does not deserve to govern.

Many other nations have risen above their inglorious past. It’s time to look to the future.

The material inequality within a society is merely a manifestation of the inequality in the cognitive ability, attitude, and belief system of individuals within that society. People are not equal, and the larger the differences in levels of sophistication, education, accountability, intelligence, attitude, and belief systems, the larger the levels of material inequality in that society will be.

After a quarter of a century of ANC rule, the physical circumstances in which the voters find themselves cannot be anything else than the manifestation of their mindset. A democratic dispensation enables individuals to change their environment to reflect their way of thinking. They become what they think about. The potholes, riots, looting, pollution, and sewerage spills represent their thought patterns.

It follows logically that, in order to alleviate poverty, people with the slave mentality cannot be allowed to determine the policies that shape their reality. A constitution that allows collectivists to determine their own future is a document that guarantees and enforces general poverty and decay. In some towns, the court has started this process of protecting voters against themselves by ordering public institutions to abdicate their role in favor of private service providers. In order to save collectivists from themselves, we need to restrict their right to express themselves at the ballot box. Unless the right to vote is reserved for property owners only, all public services should be privatized. These options will put a circuit breaker between the mental attitude of the voter and the material circumstances he finds himself in.

Prof Friedman is one hundred percent of the problem and cannot provide one percent of the solution.

What an accurate summary, although politically so incorrect.

The second half of your sentence explains why the first half is 100% correct. On the other hand, prof. Friedman is oh so politically sensitive and therefor has no constructive contribution available.

Moneyweb can you please ask the writer to explain how one changes the past. I’d love to know.


For every person that burnt and looted, at least 10,000 did not.

reducing all this to our not addressing the economic imbalances brought on by our past is a severe insult to those 10,000 decent people.

Its not as complicated as one might think.

The Political “elite” turns their supporters into vermin. Feed them and then stand back to see what the effect of the plague would have.

Some would not allow the plague to take hold. Good sanitation for one helps.

More jumbled nonsense from Friedman. It seems our ‘intellectuals’ are as confused as our political leaders.

Putting aside the many personal attacks against the author – Apparently Moneyweb readers consider Left-leaning academics the bane of all existence – I think he does raise some good points even if he fails to provide any lasting remedy beyond a vague call to correct the wrongs of the past.

I also think there has to be an acknowledgement that as much as the past shapes our present, we need to be wary of whitewashing current concerns as symptoms of a troubled past. Doing so ignores the complexities of our country’s various socio-economic issues and provides a proverbial scapegoat for politicians and academics alike.

last paragraph:

YES, you CAN change the past,
by snapping out of your DENIAL,
and then by looking your own short-comings squarely in the eye.

that will change the past completely!!!

once you take responsibility for your own short-comings,
which were created by yourself,
only THEN you will move forward.

The more you study, the more you know. The more you know, the more you forget. The more you forget, the less you know – ain’t that so, my dearest prof? So go and change the past for yourself, maybe you’ll know more and forget less in the present!

‘As our Professor studies his particular narrowed field, over time he knows more and more about less and less, until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.’

The problem is certainly not the journey to democracy, the problem is entirely the captains of the journey… One could empathise with Ramaphosa’s position and argue that he has been president for just three years, that he is fairly progressive and just needs time to turn things around. But he spent nearly four years as deputy president of South Africa and five as deputy head of ANC, and must shoulder the blame for the ANCs failings and the resultant violence crippling our country – something he or the ANC will never do and will therefore never be the solution to the countries cry for leadership, democracy, cooperation in realising the unified South Africa that all South Africans want. Our only way forwards is without the ANC and its legacy of cadre deployment, discrimination, corruption, denial and resultant failures. The people of South Africa defended the insurrection. Not the ANC or the government. That shows the way forward.

The way forward you suggest I think is unattainable. The ANC is simply a reflection of the mindset of the majority of voting citizens. Even if the ANC dissolves or disappears, whatever party replaces it will be either largely the same or worse. It’s the majority thinking that counts in politics. The majority’s thinking does not not always follow correct thinking. The world and specially Africa is full of examples.

Based on the content of this piece that the looting and wanton destruction was as a result of factions within the ruling party. It would then be fair to lay the costs of damages in terms of financial and (most probable) loss of employment at the feet of the said ruling party? I find it very hard to believe that we the fast diwndling middle class that is at least trying to hold the pieces together has a monopoly of any sorts? That is except paying tax bill for the country to (semi) function that is…

End of comments.





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