ALL South Africans, but particularly those with material interests to protect, are properly appalled at the increasing tendency of people who are demanding what they see as their rights – be they in wages or service delivery – to turn to violence to put pressure on those in a position to address those demands.
However, if one looks at the history of South Africa since 1994, the violence does make some sense. Promises were made by the leaders of the "tripartite alliance" of union leaders, ideologues and politicians that the needs of the masses would be addressed through the new democratic institutions.
Decent housing with reticulated services, universal education to replace "Bantu education", a comprehensive primary health care system – and "jobs, jobs, jobs" were pledged by the incoming "tripartite alliance" government.
Patience was enjoined – 300 years of discrimination could not be overcome in a generation, even if the direction was set and the course vigorously pursued. However, after 18 years, while there has been some progress, the overall picture is not encouraging:
- Unemployment has not declined;
- Inequality, as measured by the Gini co-efficient, has increased, even if it is no longer wholly colour coded. The gross display of wealth by the nouveau riche is an additional affront to the poor;
- Education for those who need it most, if they are to work their way out of poverty, has declined;
- The provision of health services for the poor has not improved significantly;
- Many urban areas have not been upgraded and the number of those inadequately housed remains enormous.
The institutions through which the masses were encouraged to pursue the goal of "a better life for all" – political parties, trade unions and the public service – have increasingly devoted themselves to the comfort and welfare of their leaders and "cadres", often at the direct expense of their supporters, members and account holders. Patience has been rewarded only with neglect or demands for more patience.
Attempts to work through the institutions, or peaceful demonstrations, have been met with promises which have not been honoured. Roadblocks, arson and stone-throwing, however self-destructive they may be, do get the attention of the authorities.
The "spectre" which Karl Marx saw hovering over Europe in 1848 – "the year of revolutions" – hovers over South Africa, ready to engulf not only the pale heirs of the old apartheid regime, but their engorged successors too. We all need to listen to the messages in the fires and the stones – and not allow ourselves to be deafened by the guns of repression.
Michael Whisson, Grahamstown