Inequality and violent protests in South Africa

In 2014 I wrote a piece for this site on the work of psychoanalyst, Paul Verhaeghe, specifically the book in which he writes about the link between inequality in a market-based society and health problems across a wide spectrum. In addition to stress and anxiety symptoms, Verhaeghe pointed to something confirmed by other researchers too, namely, that “there is more aggression, less trust, more fear” in highly unequal societies.

What made me think back to this post was an experience I had yesterday (June 14), driving along the Garden Route from Greyton in the Western Cape to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, combined with a striking, disturbing aerial photograph, in a recent TIME magazine (June 11, p. 28-29), of starkly contrasting urban spaces in South Africa. The caption — which does not capture in such shocking visual detail what the photograph reveals — reads as follows:

“Inequality is found around the globe, but the World Bank says South Africa qualifies as the starkest example. For a vivid example of it, Johnny Miller of the Unequal Scenes Project sent a drone over northwest Johannesburg. On the left is Kya Sands, a shack city that is home to many economic migrants who arrived from other African nations. Across the road is Bloubusrand [sic], a middle-class suburb known for its diverse mix of residents.”

The photograph sums up in undeniable visual terms what many people in South Africa are still in denial about – the unsustainable inequality characteristic of this society, and the fundamental need to change this state of affairs. Just how urgent, if not imperative, the need to address this inequality is, lest it should bring us to the brink of social anarchy, if not civil war, was forcibly impressed upon me by events on the road from Greyton to Port Elizabeth yesterday.

When I stopped at Sedgefield to fill up with petrol, I heard people talking about the ‘trouble in the direction of the Tsitsikama toll gate’. When I inquired about the nature of the ‘trouble’, they described scenes of protest, stone-throwing (at motorists) and burning tyres in Plettenberg Bay, Knysna and The Crags, near Storms River. It was too late for me to turn around and take the inland route, so — when they told me the police were on the scene — I decided to take my chances.

I must have sat in long lines of cars and trucks along that road, listening to radio updates, for at least two hours, trying to get some reading done on my Kindle in-between moving forward at a snail’s pace and stopping again a few kilometres further. When we got to Plettenberg Bay there was a heavy pall of smoke hanging over the road ahead, and the police re-routed motorists along the back road past Robberg to avoid the flash points of the protests.

Meanwhile I heard on the radio that the protests emanated from dissatisfaction with lack of houses, electricity and basic services. On the road to PE from there I had plenty of time to think about the significance of these ugly scenes of confrontation between police and shack dwellers, and the direction in which my thoughts took me was not reassuring. What the TIME photograph, together with its caption, said in fairly abstract terms, had been brought vividly to life in these scenes, and I realized that they do not augur well for the future in this beautiful, but benighted country.

Recently similar protests occurred in towns near where my partner and I live, namely in Hermanus, Caledon, and just last week in Bot River, causing us huge delays getting to Cape Town for an interview at the Portuguese consulate for visas (that us poor South Africans are always subjected to). And every time it is the same story: dissatisfaction with the living conditions that these people have to put up with. Hence, my train of thought along the road back to PE inexorably led me to the conclusion, that – unless things could begin to change tangibly fairly soon – we are in for escalating violence in South Africa. I would hesitate to say in all seriousness that ‘the revolution has begun’, but when one really considers quite honestly the chasm between the haves and the have-nots in South Africa, even that — the uprising of the poor — is not beyond the realm of the possible.

And, to get back to Verhaeghe’s work on inequality, the root of the problem (as Verhaeghe — a Belgian in a wealthy country where inequality, far less severe than in South Africa, is already showing alarming social effects — has shown), lies in the fact that South Africa chose to go the American neoliberal model way in 1994, namely dog-eat-dog capitalism. Which is excellent for the rich, and those who got all the opportunities in the world to get rich, but which is, by the same token, terrible for the poor, and those who do not get these opportunities. Social democracies like those of Scandinavia and western Europe would have been far better models to emulate.

Unless the South African government, together with civil society, can figure out a way to cross the gap between the rich and the poor, things are bound to get much worse from here on. The hopes that some people are placing in the land-redistribution programme seem to me excessive; even if the ‘expropriation without compensation’ principle allows more land to be given to the landless, there’s no guarantee that they would be able to translate this into self-sustaining wealth. And that is not even going into the question, what kind of land should be expropriated – if productive farmland would fall under the axe, as it were, it would be counter-productive, and risk food-shortage. (It seems to me that state-owned land, of which I am told there is plenty in the country, would be the best land to distribute among would-be farmers, provided they are taught how to farm, and provided the poor would benefit from this.)

Another avenue that would potentially bear fruit as far as alleviating poverty is concerned, is to teach people how to practice permaculture, as one of my erstwhile doctoral students, now Dr David Pittaway, has argued in his doctoral thesis (on the link between the looming ecological crisis and capitalism). He should know: together he and his partner started and built up a permaculture project outside of Port Elizabeth that enabled them to get pretty near to being self-sufficient as far as food goes. Imagine this being taught to poor people with access to land. In an economy where all that people can ever hope for is ‘jobs’, the ability to feed oneself in a dignity-enhancing way would be a good alternative, and may go a long way towards staving off further protests.