The actors have changed, but the plot stays the same

by Mondli Makhanya: Former editor-in-chief of the Sunday Times.
Like the '80s, the poor are still angry and the government is still out of touch.
A few months ago, as service-delivery protests flared in the Thembelihle informal settlement in southwestern Johannesburg, a colleague and I were sitting in an eatery over eggs, bacon and steaming-hot rooibos.

Inevitably, the Thembelihle riots came up in our conversation. As we deliberated on the goings-on in a place just 40km from our eatery, something struck us almost simultaneously.

In the 1980s, it was we who would have been at the barricades, and two white guys would have been sitting in an eatery talking about the riots somewhere out there in the townships.

They would have been discussing something they had read about in the newspapers and heard in the sanitised "unrest reports" that the police fed the SABC.

But we were the whites now, discussing the blacks rioting out there. Like the two white guys in the 1980s, we would leave the eatery and get on with our lives.

We would be unaffected by the smoke, rocks, teargas and bullets.

Just like us today, the two white guys would have received repeated assurances from their government that everything was under control and the police would deal sternly with those who were causing "public disturbances" and stoking "unrest".

If the two of us were the white guys of our day, then, one wonders, what does that make the government of our day? 

This week, the disconnect between the two worlds we live in as South Africans was very evident. For while the middle classes got on with their lives, parts of South Africa were burning. As happens almost every other week.

If ever there was a week for South Africa's governors to be worried, this was it. This was the week in which we came face to face with the compendium of problems that confront our republic.

It was a full-frontal, violent confrontation with our realities.

It all started in the village of Ndibela in the Eastern Cape, where pupils had become tired of learning in what was essentially a very large cupboard masquerading as a school. So they torched the so-called school.

The school - built with shutter-boards 16 years ago - had gaping holes that made learning impossible. So imagine when the rain, cold and tornadoes came along.

In Grabouw, in the Western Cape, a joint protest by African and coloured residents demanding better education facilities turned into a war between the two groups. While the two sides were initially united in confronting the authorities, events took an ugly racial turn, for reasons no one has quite put a finger on.

What we do know is that latent resentments and possibly hatreds bubbled to the surface, and racial expletives flew thick and fast.

In Ogies, in Mpumalanga, residents burnt tyres and torched vehicles as they demanded jobs from the local colliery, which they accused of not employing locals.

In Gauteng, the people of Ratanda attacked municipal property and stoned cars in protest at what they called excessive and inaccurate electricity bills.

Across the province, in Sharpeville, locals also vented their anger. Angered by the government's decision to move the official Human Rights Day event to Soweto, instead of the scene of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, they threw stones and erected burning barricades.

There you had it: race, education, service delivery, jobs and bad decision-making combining to make a combustible environment.

Then came the match: extreme anger.

There will most likely be more of these flare-ups in the weeks and months to come. As it did this week, the government will send in delegations of ministers and provincial functionaries to calm things down and promise the people that things will be better tomorrow.

The response to a week of fire was more of the same. Lethargy. Promises. Threats of crackdowns.

One gets the sense that those who govern don't quite realise the intensity of anger in South Africa's working class.

For a governing party with branches in almost every nook and cranny of our country, this is very surprising.

It is even more surprising seeing that it is in a political alliance with the biggest trade-union movement and with a left-ish party that purports to be the vanguard of the working class.

It is more likely that it is more convenient to ignore the anger and bury heads in the sand. It does not take extra-sensory nodes in one's brain to detect the rising levels of anger among South Africa's poor.

This anger is manifesting itself in unpredictable ways and in the most unlikely places, as we witnessed this week.

But it is not just the government that needs to wake from its slumber.

South Africa's middle classes also need to be conscious of this anger as they nibble on salad leaves and sip on lattes.

Useful resources:
Sunday Times
The Sunday Times is South Africa's biggest-selling national newspaper. Includes Sunday Times Magazine, Lifestyle, Business Times and Metro sections.
Follow Us
Follow us on Twitter
Follow us on LinkedIn
Follow us on Facebook
Get headlines via RSS

Receive the free Leader.co.za newsletter for the latest news and trends:
©2024 SURREAL. All rights reserved.
Follow us on Twitter Follow us on LinkedIn Join us on Facebook