Issued by the Quaker Community in Southern Africa
1 August 2021
26 years after the advent of democracy in South Africa, we have experienced our first major insurrection. It is still early days, and facts may yet come to light that shed entirely new aspects on what has happened. Thus far, what we have seen suggests that this was not a coup attempt in the classic sense, but rather a bid by a faction of the ruling party to so destabilise the country as to make the president and his faction’s grip on power untenable, thus opening the way for the former faction to take back control. They were taking advantage of the poor and vulnerable and using them as pawns in their political interest. The pandemic has already ravaged livelihoods, and subsequent to that the insurrection has made it much worse. Unaccountable elites are fighting amongst themselves without regard for the law or the general population. Huge sums of money that were supposed to be used for public good have been stolen through massive corruption.
The insurrection consisted of, inter alia, breaking open shopping centres to create multiple looting opportunities for an impoverished, locked down population and criminal elements, and then burning these same centres; inciting looting, destruction, and inter-racial conflict on social media; targeting and seeking to destroy infrastructure, including the N3, factories, and a chemicals plant in KZN; and – although this needs further investigation – taking steps to ensure a weak to non-existent response from the police, again, particularly in KZN.
The label “insurrection” is correct. The sabotage was wide-ranging and organized. There were attacks on transport (transport routes and the Port of Durban) and the health system — including a blood bank — and after attacks on warehouses, distributors and Cipla, there is now a shortage of chronic medications in the province. Very worryingly, efforts were also targeted to disrupt communications networks and curtail journalism. There has been harassment and intimidation of the journalists who are covering the protests in KZN and Gauteng, and the deliberate destruction and looting of four community radio stations.
South Africa is hardly the first African country to endure insurrection after political transition. The DRC had its prime minister assassinated a year after independence, and its first coup five years later. Nigerians suffered their first coup six years after independence. Ghanaians nine years after. Algerians three years after. Benin three years after… And these were successful coups. In each case, citizens were left with a sad, helpless feeling as the democratic process was aborted, and unaccountable elites proceeded violently to grab power from each other with no regard for the law or the general population.
In South Africa, mercifully, the narrative is turning out differently. We are 26 years into democracy. Despite the setbacks associated with state capture, our institutions of democratic governance are maturing. And when insurrection strikes, it fails to spread. Instead, it peters out and the centre holds…
And alongside the still-lingering smell of burning comes the sound of sweeping. People, spontaneously, are cleaning up and the nation, distancing itself from the insurrection, is cheering them on. Even some instigators seem to feel the mood, posing now on social media, brooms in hand.
As we digest the news that, in our hour of need, the state’s security forces may prove unwilling or unable to defend us, we are also coming to an understanding that our yearning for peace, and for our democratic adventure to continue is powerful, powerful enough indeed to stop an insurrection. Powerful enough that now the President is feeding on this power, as he seeks to lead us forward. Amid all the pain and loss, we celebrate this.
As Quakers, we should recognise these signs of the times. Our peace testimony has long led us to scepticism about the ability of state security forces – and to joyful optimism about our own capacities – to honour that of God in all of us and to nudge us in the ways of peace. We believe in power from the bottom up. We believe in living one’s faith, in the power of a good example.
Hundreds are dead from this insurrection. We mourn their loss and pray that each of their families may know peace, and receive justice. Tens of thousands of people have lost their livelihoods or their businesses. We commit ourselves to finding effective ways to show our solidarity with them, to being part of the clean-up, of the rebuilding.
Recognising that South Africa’s immense inequality, worsening poverty levels and its violent history and present have left our nation akin to a tinder box, let us also commit ourselves to the search for ways to rebuild better, more fairly, more inclusively, and more kindly. South Africa is in pain, but our democratic adventure continues. As we, as Quakers, strive to live adventurously, may we all seek and find ways to play our part in this rebuilding. We must work hand in hand with civil society to alleviate the widespread poverty in every way we can.
The real problem that needs to be addressed is that, notwithstanding acute pain in GP and KZN, most of Southern Africa is an area in crisis and in danger of becoming unviable. A real concern is that if the underlying structural inequalities are not substantively addressed, we will return to the status quo, and this will continue to explode.
South Africa emerged from Apartheid as the most unequal country in the world. However, despite significant fiscal resources and high levels of tax collection (over R1 Trillion a year) our government has simply not conducted itself with integrity in ensuring public resources are used to dismantle structural inequality. Individual actions are important, but not enough; we must also act collectively as a society.
We commit ourselves to being part of the process to ensure that no one goes hungry, to creating a politics of care, a culture of nurturance, and local economies that uplift and strengthen communities, to restore hope and address the structural issues hampering social change.
Sipho Nsimbi and Justin Ellis
Quaker Community in Southern Africa