The current crisis in South Africa that has seen widespread unrest, looting, disruption of services and destruction of infrastructure can be laid squarely at the feet of a political establishment out of touch with a population that it claims to represent, according to Corruption Watch.
While many contributory forces are at play in this crisis, the reality of people driven to desperation by hunger, inequality, and unemployment cannot be ignored. For the last decade, if not more, people have been subjected to deteriorating living conditions, lack of services, and empty promises from politicians, against a backdrop of escalating corruption at the highest levels. Add to this the austerity imposed by the lockdowns during Covid-19, the ravaging effects of the third wave of the pandemic, and ongoing blatant corruption – from tenders and procurement of PPEs to food relief parcels – and it is no wonder that matters erupted as they did.
David Lewis, executive director of Corruption Watch, commented: “While material deprivation has responded to the lit fuse, it is clear that those who bear ultimate responsibility for causing this explosion are to be found within the ranks of the African National Congress, the governing party, and in particular amongst the supporters of the disgraced former president, Jacob Zuma.”
For many years, civil society organisations have warned about the impact of not only corruption, but the effects of financial austerity on the most vulnerable, and the economic exclusion of large parts of the population whose prospects for employment have become increasingly bleaker. Interventions have taken the form of submissions to government, formal reports, papers, advocacy, and engagement with critical sectors to address the inequality and imbalances in the country, in order to avert a situation of this magnitude. The corresponding lack of leadership and accountability within critical criminal justice institutions and the hollowing out of the security apparatus has left the public vulnerable and unprotected, as the activities of last week so clearly demonstrated.
For its part, Corruption Watch has made several submissions and recommendations regarding the leadership appointment processes of key law enforcement and Chapter Nine institutions, in particular the South African Police Service (SAPS). The current environment demonstrates the inability of our law enforcement agencies to deal with a national crisis requiring just, fair, and strong oversight of a tense and volatile situation. An incapacitated law enforcement environment means little confidence and trust in its abilities, as well as little or no consideration for its authority.
The leadership vacuum is apparent by the failure of any visible high-level presence at the onset of the unrest, and the lack of communication of a concrete plan or solution to provide relief and protection for huge parts of the country affected by these activities. Government has failed to provide much-needed relief for those previously reliant on social security measures introduced during Covid. It has been silent on recovery steps to help rehabilitate affected businesses, and indeed, on how to deal with the inevitable shortage of essential supplies. This trust deficit felt by the majority of people in South Africa towards the state only deepens in a context such as the current one, where people’s physical security has felt threatened, but there has been no, or a very delayed response from state security services to mobilise in an emergency.
Corruption Watch considers this an opportune moment to advocate for much more progressive and inclusive policies that take account of the dire circumstances under which people have been forced to live during recent times.
In the short term, it is possible for the government to provide much-needed support through the re-introduction of the social relief grant for the unemployed, along with the Temporary Employment Relief Scheme intended to prop up businesses decimated by the pandemic, and now the looting. A medium-term recommendation is to consider the implementation of a basic income grant that would provide ongoing support for people most affected by poverty and unemployment.
In line with its track record of interventions aimed at bolstering the law enforcement agencies, Corruption Watch proposes measures to build a culture of accountability and commitment to the rule of law in law enforcement agencies. The events of the past week also point to the need for greater accountability of SAPS and critical divisions such as Crime Intelligence and the Hawks, along with increased capacity.
“While the process of police investigation and prosecution for this treasonous conduct needs to be swift and ruthless, we equally insist that the ANC immediately purge its ranks of those so anxious to regain access to the resources of the state, that they are prepared to visit death and destruction on the people of South Africa to achieve their nefarious ends,” concluded Lewis.