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'Covid-19 lit the fire': Societal inequalities lit the country in July, experts say

The Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg was one of the retail centres targeted and set ablaze by protesters in the recent spate of unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal. File photo.
The Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg was one of the retail centres targeted and set ablaze by protesters in the recent spate of unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal. File photo.
Image: Twitter

Long-standing structural inequalities, political entrepreneurs and Covid-19 fuelled the riots that left more than 300 dead in an outburst of violence in July.

This was the analysis of public commenters during the 7th Presidential Roundtable on After the Riots, hosted by the Academy of Science of SA (ASSAf).

One of the speakers, Prof Adam Habib, director of the London School of African and Oriental Studies, said structural inequality in society had led to major political polarisation.

“Covid-19 has accelerated the inequalities to a crisis point. People were actually starving; many have lost their jobs while others were dying. [During the riots] a group of [political] members decided to intervene, it doesn’t matter whether they were planning a coup or not, or to weaken the president. In the context of SA, Covid-19 lit the fire,” Habib said.

He said that with the increasing dissatisfaction around service delivery across the country, a collapse of order was inevitable.

“Frankly, some of those people should have been arrested. There are people who profit from war and I think there are serious role players in the ruling party and in some of the opposition parties. This is how they make their money.

“If you were serious about getting out of the mess you would have acted against the people who started the violence,” Habib added.

He said the country's leadership left much to be desired.

“Cyril doesn’t come anywhere close to what we require, but who’s the alternative? The coalition government is by fear. It will become the elite sharing of the spoils,” he added.

Prof Thuli Madonsela, a law professor at Stellenbosch University and former public protector, said the country was bound to see another uprising if social cohesion was not prioritised.

“What happened in this country was coming for a long time. The truth will set us free, if we are honest. I don’t think [former president Jacob] Zuma or Carl Niehaus were the cause of the riots; those were some of the instigators.

“The strength of the rule of law is the reason July happened. One of the problems is the state capture [inquiry] taking forever. It covered so much grounds and as a result was slow.

“We need to make our people feel hope, that they belong to some Noah’s ark. Democracy is no longer democratic. When it was invented there were no political parties, someone told us political parties are the best way,” she said.

Madonsela said she feels strongly that going back to civil society and building a culture of social activism without a desire to be political might save SA.

Ferial Haffajee, associate editor at the Daily Maverick, said it was shocking how quickly the country moved past debacles.

“It was a crisis without consequences at all. Not a single one of the alleged instigators was arrested. We’re a very resilient nation and that’s why we could move on so quickly from the crisis.

“If you look at what happened, almost as soon as the intense fear was over, the reclaiming and rebuilding happened.

“The political roots of what happened were pretty easy for everyone to see, 367 people died and until today we haven’t had an accounting or an audit on what happened —  R7m in spaza shops was lost.

“The long tail is environmental factors caused by the damage to beaches,” Haffajee said.

TimesLIVE


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