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Regional Interests

Inequity Is Behind The Violent Unrest In South Africa

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We want to turn now to South Africa, which has just gone through one of its most violent weeks in decades - the worst violence, in fact, since the end of enforced racial segregation known as apartheid. More than 100 people have died, and many more have been arrested following a wave of protests, riots and looting. The immediate spark for the protests was the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma, but our next guest says there is much more to it than that.

Eusebius McKaiser is a South African political analyst and broadcaster based in Johannesburg. He recently wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post titled "Don't Overlook The Deeper Roots Behind the Violence And Looting In South Africa."

EUSEBIUS MCKAISER: The single biggest deep cause of what we see playing out are levels of inequity in the South African society that logically at some point would have ended in social unrest. We've got 74% of young people unemployed, not in educational institutions, nor in training facilities where they might get apprenticeships to learn new trades that they can use within the labor market. We've got a Gini coefficient that puts us up right there with countries like Brazil, competing for the horrible dishonor of being one of the most unequal nations on Earth, whether it's by income, wealth or asset. Half the population is chronically poor, and we have economic growth that is almost near 0%. We had an economic recession even before the pandemic.

So the structural realities about South African life when it comes to the state of the economy are such that you've got a small number of people at the top who are wealthy, a precarious middle class of sorts, and then you've got a massive base of people on the margins of society. That, for me, is a very important part of the explanandum for what is going on in South Africa right now.

MARTIN: Why would Zuma's arrest - the former president's arrest - be the spark that set this off? Is loyalty to him that profound that it would set this off? Did he - forgive me. I have to ask, did he stoke this in some way?

MCKAISER: During the presidency of Jacob Zuma, we basically had the South African state being sold to the highest bidders in the private sector, in particular a notorious family from India, the Gupta family, that were friends of Jacob Zuma. And so you had a hollowing out of the South African state, quite literally state-owned entities, for example, being looted, grand-scale corruption by civil servants, directors, generals that are important, high-ranking civil servants.

And so what you have are literally hundreds of guilty people who are not yet in jail. And they are part of the Jacob Zuma faction inside the governing African National Congress that has an interest in making sure that constitutionalism doesn't flourish because if the rule of law is entrenched - and there isn't a more beautiful symbol of the rule of law being animated than a former president being in jail - then who are you as a lower-ranking member of a criminal network to not be next? So there are many politicians in South Africa, many public servants, many businesspeople who have an interest in making sure that the legal system is undermined because if the legal system is animated, then all of them could end up in jail like Jacob Zuma. So it's a rather perverse incentive for protecting him.

MARTIN: This clearly has a deep stem here. But I want to go back to something you said a couple of minutes ago, which is that, you know, more than two decades have passed from the end of apartheid in South Africa. And yet - and you are saying, according to the World Bank and other measures, South Africa is one of the most, if not the most economically unequal country in the world. Why is that?

MCKAISER: So one fact is historical, but it doesn't let the governing party off the hook. But for completeness sake, let's just state it. Obviously, we inherited a racist apartheid state that, by very design, excluded millions of Black people from opportunities for self-actualization, including economic self-actualization. And so the South African state had to be reconceptualized and repurposed for a democratic era in which political freedom was meant to then transition into economic freedom as quickly as possible.

But, Michel, what happened in South Africa is unfortunately an example of what happens when you think that you must be the exception to the post-colonial story instead of being cautious and humble. As a liberation movement - with other liberation movements, they did a great job with the help of the international community and sanctions and everything else to bust the National Party racist government and get them out of office. But they weren't ready to govern the morning after Nelson Mandela became the first president. And so there's a failure to put in place the institutions and the mechanisms that can then create conditions for business to flourish, investment to come into the country, and ultimately for millions of South Africans to have jobs, jobs, jobs with which to realize their individual potential and to live well.

MARTIN: What is the sense in the country now? Is there a sense of emergency? Is there a sense of what the way forward might be?

MCKAISER: The real problem, Michel, is that we need to end up in a country that is more economically just, which means dealing with inequality - not just low growth, but specifically inequality, because as I pointed out in the piece, it's inequality, even more than low growth, even more than high unemployment that correlates with gratuitous acts of violence. But what is the middle step that's missing? Leadership and the program of action. And the leadership vacuum within the body politic is the reason why there's still some despair. We need civil society writ large to try and compensate for the political leadership that is lacking.

MARTIN: Is there any cause for hope right now?

MCKAISER: The cause for hope is that South Africans rely on memory of when they were - when we were on the brink, proverbially, and always managed to rein ourselves back in. If you think about it this way, Michel, two weeks ago, we were praised by the world for the example of jailing a former president. So there is the South African story. It's a pendulum that keeps swinging. We have hopeful moments and hopeless moments, and we are hoping that this hopeless moment won't last for too long.

MARTIN: That was Eusebius McKaiser, a political analyst and broadcaster in South Africa. We reached him in Johannesburg. Mr. McKaiser, thank you so much for spending this time with us today.

MCKAISER: Thank you for your beautiful questions. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.