Tellingly, the president referred to these measures as “reforms”, language that invokes the idea of incremental change. But such initiatives sound distant and removed from what is needed.
What people want to see is visible change in their daily lives, and more imagination on the part of their government in relieving their hardships. The R350 monthly grant to unemployed people during the Covid-19 pandemic was a tangible response to the crisis families facing starvation needed. Similar scaled-up measures to deal with the multiple crises are needed, and there is no time to waste.
Something needs to be done urgently to address a host of big challenges, ranging from the high cost of living to soaring fuel prices, and inadequate provision of basic municipal services.
Bored youth, with limited opportunities for work and gaining skills, are sucked into drugs or alcohol abuse, petty crime or worse.
Given the picture I have painted, is an Arab Spring likely?
It is impossible to make an accurate prediction, but two trajectories are plausible.
One is a repeat of last July’s devastating unrest. The failure of the state to respond decisively to the unrest could encourage politically inspired anarchists to resort to violence again if they don’t get their way. They have tested the waters and seen what’s possible. Given that people remain frustrated about their lives, the country could see another outbreak of violence.
Another trajectory is the one in which lawlessness increases further. Transnational organised crime networks and local gangs are becoming increasingly brazen. The police are overstretched and gripped by their own internal problems. This breakdown in respect for the law by criminals has the effect of eroding the legitimacy and authority of the state.
Extortion, protection rackets, kidnappings, drive-by shootings, if they are allowed to encroach unchecked, will result in criminal networks being more of a destabilising factor than political actors. A convergence of these elements — a SA where disgruntled elements engage in ongoing destabilisation and collude with, or even unwittingly create the space for criminal networks to run amok — does not augur well for a prosperous nation.
Uprisings like those in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were the result of combustible local conditions triggered by a small spark. People were railing against political systems they saw as authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.
SA is still a very different political space. The country is a noisy democracy with a free and open media, lots of dissenting voices, and insulting the government of the day doesn’t carry any overt sanction.
It could be a blessing in disguise that the country is perpetually in election mode. The local government elections and national general elections occur every five years. Because they overlap each other, the country has an election every three years.
In between these events, political parties hold their own leadership contests, which serve as bellwethers for who is likely to occupy national office or local government seats.
This ongoing extra- and intra-political competition serves as a pressure valve to absorb the energy that might otherwise bubble over.