19 Jul Chasing Highs and Lows: The South African Crisis
Chasing Highs and Lows: The South African Crisis
There’s a South African school chant which involves a character coming to ruin or save the day in an airplane. The character’s plane is shot down, but they have a parachute, they jump out of the airplane only to find that their parachute won’t open, luckily they’re heading right for a haystack to cushion their blow, but there’s a fork in the haystack…and so the chant carries on indefinitely.
It is a fitting chant to hail in the second half of 2021 – not merely does it underscore the rapid vacillation between hope and despair, but its juvenile origins are somewhat fitting to describe much of the discourse permeating through the country.
From best to worst
It seemed somewhat surreal when we woke up one morning in June to find that South Africa had become the best emerging-market currency of 2021. Not only that, but we’d managed to attain a three-year high against the USD at R13,46.
It would be remiss to discount the factors which contributed to this high – amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, no one had been fairing incredibly well around the globe. And yet, even with the country bracing for the impact of a Covid-19 delta variant, there seemed to be a silver lining on the horizon.
Part of this silver lining was the definitive steps taken by the South African justice system to hold former chief-in-charge and major looter – Jacob Zuma – to account. Though the State Capture enquiry hadn’t run its course, it was Zuma’s snubbing of the legislature which allowed acting chief justice Sisi Khampepe to cast her contempt of court ruling. Under the watch of deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma had defied orders from the country’s highest court around his corruption charges, and he was subsequently sentenced to 15 months in jail.
It was nip-tuck for a moment as South Africans watched with bated breath to see if Zuma would hand himself over voluntarily, or if the arrest would involve violent pushback – in the end, Zuma conceded… or did he?
Despite everyday South Africans cheering on Zuma’s arrest, it was inevitable that the country would be divided on the issue. People had, after all, voted the man into office more than once – even after his hand in widespread corruption had been patently clear.
Civil rights attorney Tracey Lomax, in a Facebook post, clarified some of the dichotomy. The slow drawl of the Zondo commission may have seemed illogical to many, but it did represent the intricate nature of our justice system which – above all – wishes to be fair. Despite its flaws, the aim had never been to throw a 79-year-old former freedom fighter in jail. And despite the judiciary holding fast to their determination to mete out justice, hard choices had to be made – choices which no justice will have wanted to make.
Those with their fingers of the pulse of South African politics had been aware, all along, that holding Zuma to account will have caused a great chasm – not merely along political and racial lines, but in the divide between tribal factions within the Zulu community. This infighting had already been amplified by the death of former Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu, in March 2021. The power struggle which ensued around the right to succession quaked further with the death of Queen regent Mantfombi Dlamini in April 2021.
Perhaps the Achilles heel of middle- to upper class South Africans with little insight into tribal politics and culture is that many still believe their opponents to be simpletons acting under the compulsion of some animalistic need.
Such narrative is not merely sprung from a measure of racial exclusivity, but a false perception that warfare and debate are best maintained within the framework of societal civility.
We should be under no impression that chaos is in and of itself a powerful tool in strategic warfare. And one needn’t look locally for confirmation. Such antics were part and parcel to Trump’s political campaign and this campaign had been spurred on by foreign governments. Russia, for instance, had not been ashamed of their strategy and had highlighted this in both statement and inference – it could make a country destroy itself.
So, as violence, looting and unrest – the likes of which we haven’t seen in decades – captured South Africa in the wake of Zuma’s incarceration – the knee-jerk reaction seemed to be that it was nothing more than opportunistic carnage.
That is not a false assertion. But we would be foolish to imagine that whatever powers worked behind the scenes had not envisioned the carnage and escalation of violence all along.
It came as no surprise that South African intelligence fingered 12 instigators at the heart of the week-long rioting and looting which claimed more than 70 lives, destroyed thousands of businesses and cost billions of rands in damage.
Burn, the beloved country
One needn’t immerse yourself in the teachings of Sun Tzu to grasp that the greatest political tactic is also the one which requires least effort. It is, after all, a scientific principle – the path of least resistance and state of lowest energy expenditure is the most efficient.
Pair this with an understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and you have a perfect storm brewing – one which requires little more than lifting a finger.
The first step is to create an us-vs-them narrative. Whether you be a high flying businessman like Trump, or a South African with limited schooling like Zuma: the rules are the same. Whatever is taken from your followers can be attributed to the antics of ‘them’ – your opposition. Even if you orchestrate the need yourself, give liberally in other ways – in attention, in gimmicks and bravado – make those who follow you feel part of something exclusive. And once you’ve taken most of their primary needs: food, work, income, health – the spark which lights the final fire is showing them that the opposition wants to take you away as well.
Indeed, it is a rather simplistic way to describe political strategy, but is it farfetched? Playing to people’s baser instincts is such an effortless task.
And if your conscience does not drive you to intervene, stop escalation and preach cooperation over chaos, then perhaps it’s not such a devastating strategy in your own mind.
Spirit of Ubuntu
Perhaps, what enemies of the state and people miss – those who wish to rupture the foundation of humanity in society – it’s that those baser instincts which create the chaos are also the instincts which nurture survival, empathy and collaboration in humans.
We had not survived so long and become an apex species by warfare and carnage alone – we have come this far because humans had evolved over eons to work together.
Through tears, wounds and shock South Africans showed each other what we are made of.
South Africans who had lost their jobs due to the looting were quick to raise their hands and say, “we have nothing else to do, so can we help you?”. This insistence to look on the bright side was echoed by one and all across the country, and from fellow countrymen and women around the globe asking, “how can I help you?”
Within hours, thousands of South Africans had mobilised to clean up streets, provide free health, safety and construction services. Teams of creatives joined in to offer pro bono services to market the new goal amid the chaos: rebuilding a country in tatters. Farmers, drivers, builders, cleaners, shops, nurses, psychologists, restaurateurs, radio stations, teachers, pastors and other professionals pitched in to offer their services to those in need. Some offered to feed those who helped with cleanup, others offered to protect them, and others offered to drive them around. Expats the world over asked where they can deposit money to fuel this new effort. Corporations started pitching in, offering free shop fittings, security, fuel, sanitation and more.
Perhaps the most unexpected was the taxi associations pitching in and creating physical barriers with their vehicles for kilometres on end around malls and other areas in an effort to fight the anarchy threatening to overtake the country.
Although the country may be burning with despair and loss, it is also burning with a conviction and dedication vested in each individual – both locally and abroad. It is an absolutely remarkable show of our resilience and mirth that amid so many job losses, personal losses, traumas and shrinking incomes we as a South African nation scattered worldwide had instinctively gone from outraged to outperformers.
Mzansi – we are one
The debate between stayers and leavers has been a long-standing one, and has often left us with much animosity and division. It is odd that it takes civil unrest of such devastating proportions to pull us all together.
It is also a sign of what it truly means to be South African, and that it remains a part of us no matter where we may find ourselves around the globe.
The silver lining in all this is, perhaps, that we carry the spirit of our nation no matter where we find ourselves – and that spirit is not one of chaos, hatred and animosity, it is one of love, empathy and the collaborative beating of a million South African drums in the hearts of our nation.
We can’t predict where the Zuma saga and the investigations into the instigation will go, so for now we’ll just have to wait and see.
Here or gone?
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