University of Johannesburg: Looting and violence wasn’t only in July 2021, it’s a fact of daily life

The 2021 July riots were the most widespread, coordinated, and visible instance of looting in South Africa. A closer look shows that many were already chipping away at state and private assets on a day-to-day basis and continue to do so.

Leaders and officials barely have any moral high ground as many of them are implicated. Worse still, the incentives for ethical and responsible citizenship are absent because the population has no stake in the well-being of their country as a result of engineered inequality.

It has been a year since the July unrest, which is attributed to the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. The unrest, in which 350 people lost there lives, was classified as the worst violence since the end of apartheid. It has been repeated to the point of cliché that these unrests and social discontent mirror entrenched inequalities in the country, mostly attributed to the apartheid era and bad governance in contemporary South Africa.

It has been observed that South Africa has a dual economy, which creates two contrasting socioeconomic spaces in the same country; sometimes next to each other. This was most famously observed and articulated by former president Thabo Mbeki when he noted that the rich and poor are not only separated by the wealth gap but that there is also a qualitative difference as a result of these two economies. That was almost 20 years ago, at the Black Management Forum (BMF) conference in 2003. Not much has changed since then. In his address, he metaphorically compared the dual economy to a double-storey building without a connecting staircase.

But such discontent can also be seen in governance and policy implementation at all levels of governance. Numerous policies have aimed at bridging the gap. Each president sets priorities during their time of administration, as did President Cyril Ramaphosa when he outlined his seven priorities in the 2019 State of the Nation address.

These entailed: economic transformation and job creation, education, skills, and health, consolidating the social wage through reliable and quality basic services; spatial integration, human settlements and local government, social cohesion and safe communities, a capable, ethical, and developmental state; and a better Africa and world.

At the policy level, these priorities are realistic and achievable, and they address urgent problems, with the National Development Plan, published 10 years ago, outlining all steps needed to achieve these priorities. But policy implementation and government spending has rendered these priorities, even the most feasible among them, as too idealistic.

Three years since the appointment of Ramaphosa and the pursuit of these priorities has deteriorated, compounded by the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy and development. Or, rather, the pandemic exposed entrenched infrastructure fragility, ineffective governance and rampant corruption.

Government spending still does not cohere with the priorities that are set to address and eradicate the problems. Instead, it has been contradictory and sometimes focused on vanity projects that in no way help eradicate the rampant poverty or help create decent employment in the country.

The presidents’ priorities were accompanied by five goals: No person in South Africa will go hungry; our economy will grow at a much faster rate than our population; two million more young people will be in employment; our schools will have better educational outcomes and every 10-year-old will be able to read for meaning; and violent crime will be halved. Yet these indicators have worsened in 2022. The poverty and employment indicator was seen in the July unrest’s rampant looting, signalling the extent to which the majority of the people endure poverty. The nature of the lootings showed how people aimed to put food on the table by any means necessary, with the breakdown in state security capacity providing an opportunity to do so illegally.

In understanding the cause of these problems and their persistent nature, we must go back to the dual economy metaphor, which casts the country as a double storey house without a connecting staircase. It leaves out one crucial detail — there is a linking staircase but it is available only to the few who are politically connected. In this case, government officials are the nouveau riche now on the upper, affluent side of the economy while the vast majority is still stuck in the poor economy.

The problem stems from having affluent officials addressing socioeconomic problems of the have-nots and they may not understand the extensiveness of these daily difficulties. Many of these problem solvers appear to have no long-term interest in the future of the country and many are close to or older than the retirement age.

This disengagement is seen in how government spending does not effectively address the priorities and goals of the president. This does nothing for bridging the gap between these two economies and reducing inequality. Overall, the president’s priorities remain a document that needs an infusion of ethics for effective implementation while government spending points to ignorance of the deep challenges in the country.

In addressing this problem, the philosophy of ubuntu being central to development and priority implementation remains critical. This talks to officials implementing projects as though they are doing it for themselves, while residents should have enough of an incentive to take the initiative to safeguard development and prevent infrastructure being vandalised during protests.

A closer look will demonstrate that there was looting before July 2021 and there continues to be looting. Small, lower intensity acts chip away at infrastructure — from the theft and sale of Eskom’s electric cables (reportedly costing the taxpayer R2-billion a year, not to mention indirect costs from the resultant load-shedding) to rampant day-to-day crime from businesses and homes.

The time for decisive and ethical leadership has long come. So too for the granting of a stake in the country to the entire citizenry.