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Insurrection in South Africa: what can civil unrest tell us about the egalitarian promise of a post-apartheid state?


In July, more than 330 South Africans lost their lives after political protests descended into days of widespread violence and looting. The unrest was sparked by former president Jacob Zuma’s incarceration after refusing to stand trial on corruption charges. However, tensions have been bubbling under the surface ever since the establishment of the rainbow nation’s ‘transformative’ Constitution in 1996. Unhealed wounds rooted in the government’s failure to effectively address and ameliorate the entrenched divides of apartheid mean that, whilst we aren’t living in a time where the colour of your skin dictates your school, bathroom, or supermarket, damaging class antagonism and hostility towards the state persists. This animosity leaves us to question just how far South Africa has come from its dark, discriminatory past. 

In the history of civil rights, South Africa is known for its abolition of apartheid and the formation of a democracy. However, for black South Africans (who account for three-quarters of the nation), political liberation has yet to materialise into tangible gain.  

To understand why recent peaceful political protests quickly descended into a cesspit of criminal activity and violence, it is vital to examine the promises made and broken by the ANC over their twenty-seven years in power. 

There is no denying that the country has experienced significant economic growth since the end of apartheid. Following their transition into democracy, South Africa was able to borrow funds from international financial institutions; credit availability that allowed its gross domestic product to nearly triple from $139.8bn in 1994 to $368.9bn in 2018.  

However, economic prosperity came at a social cost. During the elections in 1994, the ANC recognized that the continuation of white economic control would only further social and racial tensions. In an attempt to alleviate the hostility and mitigate inequality they commissioned the newly formed Reconstruction and Development Programme to ‘de-racialize business ownership’, and by corollary, improve social mobility. However, by 1996 the programme was effectively abandoned in favour of the ‘Growth, Employment and Redistribution’ programme, focusing on economic expansion through export promotion and privatisation. This was in line with the ANC’s primary economic aim: to attract global investment following a sharp cooling of relations with Western powers during the apartheid years. Though on a surface level this seemed like a necessary step to increase prosperity, the white elite maintained ownership over stolen land as the ANC felt a radical redistribution would deter volatility-averse potential investors.  

The repercussions of this programme continue to negatively impact the black population of South Africa today. As the riots raged on, millions of black South Africans remain unemployed, uneducated, and without the resources to start businesses or change their circumstances.  

To take just this example: the government’s aversion to large-scale land transfers remains indicative of their general attitude towards a post-apartheid state: economic policy first, social policy second. Thus, despite a campaign originally intended to uplift the disenfranchised, the majority of black citizens remain frustrated, abandoned, and poverty-stricken, long after the egalitarian promise of ‘peace and prosperity for all’ in a post-apartheid state.  

At the expense of poor, black people, the economy flourished. Many of the frustrations felt by the rioters today stem from the government’s failure to fulfil the promises it made 27 years ago.  

In the absence of consequential change, many, understandably, refuse to trust the egalitarian promises made by the state and its leaders. This frustration materialises itself in violence, looting, and gunfire, as shown over the week of riots last month. 

Built-up resentment can further be attributed to possibly the most conspicuous mark of inequality: Townships. As Benjamin Fogel puts it: “townships are a footprint left by the stain on history that is apartheid.” Though the ANC did build legions of new housing for black South Africans, the buildings were concentrated in the townships where the already segregated black people lived in squalor, on land they did not legally own. Today, these townships continue to reinforce racial segregation and the geographic structures of apartheid. Owing to the rural location of most townships, workers have to pay a large proportion of their income to minibus drivers to take them to and from the big cities. It is irrefutable that a key constitutional promise regarding universal access to adequate housing (Section 26, 1996 constitution) is still steeped in inequality and segregation, reinforcing just how far away we are from a post-apartheid state. 

There is widespread debate over how to heal over 70 years of maltreatment. Fundamentally, the nation’s democratic institutions cannot succeed without radical reform. For tensions to ease and class disparity to be mitigated, social policy must be reconceived in conjunction with economic policy. For example, improvements in housing provision should be considered not only to uphold human dignity but also to foster fair economic growth and development. By employing this way of thinking, the government will find itself putting much-needed time and funding into social mobility. Consequently, the impoverished people of South Africa will be able to participate in economic, social, and political life with a fairer amount of opportunity. 

The July riots are just the tip of the iceberg: the result of years of oppression and broken promises. Though the protests began as a response to Zuma’s persecution, the subsequent looting, violence, and deaths highlight a hungry, unemployed, and impoverished population. When one considers how little life has changed for the majority of poor, black South Africans – it is clear that the promise of a post-apartheid state is yet to be realised.  

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