Disgruntled residents throw rocks as they confront police officers in Vosloorus, South Africa. File/ AFP
When rioting broke out in KwaZulu-Natal after former South African president Jacob Zuma surrendered to serve the 15-month sentence on charges of contempt of court, it looked as though the angry supporters of Zuma were out in the streets, and the situation would be brought under control. It did not stop. The violence continued, the looting went on. The army was called out. The death toll mounted and reached 200. And the number of people who have been arrested has reached more than 2,000.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa who had toured parts of the violence-hit townships had said that the violence was pre-planned. This pointed to Zuma’s supporters inside the ruling African National Congress (ANC), as well as those outside it.
There is little doubt that ANC, which has been in power since the end of white minority rule in 1994, is riven with factions, and there is in-fighting among them. But observers feel that the violence that broke out since Zuma’s arrest, goes beyond the inner factional fighting of the ANC.
They think that it is a symptom of the deeper malaise in South Africa – the persisting poverty, the acute inequalities. A World Bank report has described South Africa as the most unqualified society.
This is reflected in the statistic about ownership of land. According to a study, the majority blacks own four per cent of the land, while 12 per cent of the whites own 72 per cent of the land.
But this cannot be blamed on the whites-only apartheid regime. It is a quarter century since the blacks took over the reins of power. The blame for the economic inequality rests squarely on the shoulders of the black leaders, and especially the ANC leadership.
It is of course not the time for blaming each other. It seems that the South African political establishment must rise above their partisan interests and face up to the real challenge facing South Africa. It is indeed true that after more than a century of colonial distortions, it is no easy task to remove the deeply inherent social and economic disparities.
But the problem can only be addressed through a forward looking economic transformation rather than through a backward looking programme of settling scores over past wrongs.
There is a clear lesson to be learned from neighbouring Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe, a freedom-fighter who became a dictator, found it useful to blame the white minority and ordered the white-owned farms to be expropriated.
It seemed an act of justice but it did not help improve the economy of Zimbabwe. South African leaders, led by Nelson Mandela, had wisely turned their back on a policy showing the whites their place.
South Africa seemed to be in a stronger position because the black leaders wanted to work along with the whites and other ethnic minorities like the Indians. The government of Ramaphosa must continue to work with the idea of the rainbow nation. The incidents of attacks on Indians in Phoenix is a warning that inter-racial relations are under a strain. There is an urgent need to avert ethnic strife.
South Africa remains one of the better placed countries on the African continent in terms of social and economic well-being. And it should be possible to chart a sensible course of social and economic change that reduces poverty and glaring inequality. The violence that had erupted in the wake of Zuma’s imprisonment is a wake-up call. It is time to heal the festering social wounds, and for the leaders to send out a message of compassion and goodwill.
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