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Inside S Africa riots beyond the rainbow

By XN Iraki | July 18th 2021

Inequality, confirmed by the Gini index is one of the lasting legacies of apartheid. [Reuters]

What we thought was a triumph of law over parochialism has turned into riots centred in two provinces where Jacob Zuma, the former president of South Africa has lots of political support.

Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal provinces are the worst affected. They host Johannesburg and the port of Durban respectively.

Reading through media reports, the word tribe or tribalism is never mentioned in relation to the riots, perhaps a bold attempt to make South Africa look different from the rest of Africa.

Maybe I am too Kenyan. Let’s be blunt, what is happening in South Africa goes beyond jailing President Jacob Zuma, the former anti-apartheid fighter and a traditionalist going by the number of his wives. Let us try and objectively unravel what is happening in the Rainbow Nation.

We start with a bit of show off. About ten years ago, I took a 10-day trip to South Africa. Landing in Cape Town, I had time to admire the table mountain, the beaches nearby and then a long drive north to wine country through Stellenbosch, and Robertson.

Visiting lots of wineries, some of which have diversified into golf.

We turned South East to Mossel Bay, George, Knysna, Port Elizabeth (now Gqberha), Port Alfred, East London, then through Ciskei a former Bantustan, through Orange (not Orania), Bloemfontein and finally Johannesburg then back Nairobi. South Africa is a beautiful county but that beauty hides a lot. Inequality is visible everywhere, particularly in cities.

People loot an area near a burning warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa, July 14. [Reuters]

The fortification of the home I slept in Sandton left my head spinning. Inequality, confirmed by the Gini index is one of the lasting legacies of apartheid.

Blacks and whites were kept separate. The whites sprinted ahead economically, having living standards that are equal or better than Europeans or Americans.

They had minerals to exploit, the farmlands and cheap labour imported from neighbouring countries. The Blacks were left behind with poor education, congested in homelands called Bantustans.

When South Africa got uhuru in 1994 after 342 years of white domination, the world was ecstatic with Nelson Mandela as the first Black president.

Gaining uhuru alone, South Africa had undivided global attention. But like a wedding, the honeymoon was not long. It was easy to vote and get a majority government. But what of uplifting the standard of living of this majority?

Watching in the media what is being looted gives you an idea of what probably went wrong in South Africa. They are looting the items that any middle class should be owning or aspire to own.

The Rainbow Nation has not broken the virtuous cycle of poverty. A huge underclass without marketable skills and joblessness dominates the voters’ list.

Such a crowd is easy to incite. Add the promises that were never fulfilled like Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). The BEE benefited the few well-educated Blacks. We saw that in Kenya after uhuru too. The rest of the masses were left on their own and now their children have matured.

Those born after South Africa got uhuru are now 27 years old. We have argued that political problems are easier to solve than economic problems. Voting takes a few minutes. It takes years to build enterprises and create jobs.

Cars are seen on streets near a burning warehouse in Durban, South Africa, July 14. [Reuters]

The South African economic problem has not been adequately addressed. Add misrule and nepotism and it’s not hard to see that riots are not just about jailing a former leader.

African Americans

The truth is that you can’t expect a community dominated by whites for 342 years to just become capitalist or educated overnight. The fate of South African Blacks mirrors that of black Americans after emancipation from slavery.

Affirmative action has not uplifted the African Americans. It does not seem to have uplifted Black South Africans. My observation is that affirmative action rarely works despite its encroachment into the Kenyan psyche.

 It creates a façade of entitlement. Did Chinese or Koreans rise through affirmative action? Some of the greatest entrepreneurs and leaders are self-made, learning to swim from the deep end.

They develop a character, learn from first principles and gain confidence. Affirmative action denied the beneficiaries the learning curve and confidence therein. It’s worse when applied in leadership where an incompetent person ends up sharing his or her incompetence with the whole county or country.

What should South Africa do? By entrenching the rule of law, South Africa will set itself apart from the rest of Africa. Future leaders will realise their actions have consequences.

That will solve the political problems by reining in the freewheeling behaviour of politicians. South Africa should not waste a good crisis, to quote Winston Churchill.

Would forgiving Zuma entrench impunity? But not importantly, South Africa must focus and invest more in the development of her national skills.

That calls for a transformation of the education system. Young South Africans must acquire skills that are globally marketable and relevant to the economy. That includes an entrepreneurial mindset, like turning coal into petrol during the apartheid era.

A general view of the burning warehouse in Durban, South Africa, July 14. [Reuters]

China, Singapore or South Korea did the same. If you analyse the African American problem, it needs a similar solution.

I schooled in America’s Deep South and understand their problem from experience. In both places, and Kenya should follow suit, we must inculcate in the next generation the key tenets of capitalism. It’s based on combining the factors of production, understanding that money does not grow on trees.

How are the fridges or other merchandise looted manufactured? How did they get to the malls? Where in the supply chain can one fit, creating value and money thereof? South Africa can only move forward, shedding off her past and building a more inclusive society. Such a society is built on collective sweat.

South Africa should integrate the white minority more into the economy and leverage their skills. Discriminating them will not work, not that I am a white apologist. The rest of Africa looks to South Africa as the role model.

The Rainbow Nation should not disappoint us. It should not vindicate the online jokes that suggest riots have exposed that South Africa is, after all, an African country.

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