If a sliver of South Africa’s future can be glimpsed through the prism of the current public-service protests, then the future should be delayed indefinitely. The unchecked culture of irresponsible protests has been allowed to grow into a soulless monster, ready to incite anarchy and we should all be afraid.
Much has been said about how at only 16 years of age, South Africa’s democracy is still in its infancy. But for the generation that endured decades of oppression under apartheid, 16 years (post 1994) of living under more or less the same conditions as before, is too long a time to wait for the fruits of their liberation struggle. Hence, every year without fail, civil servants and the country’s poor express their frustration at the painstakingly slow pace of transformation through protest strikes be they wage or service-delivery related.
The current strike by civil servants has been noted as being particularly vicious not just because it is threatening to tear apart the tripartite alliance, but because innocent patients including unborn babies, have needlessly, lost their lives.
The protest culture which was carried over from the apartheid resistance era has come to be accepted as one of the many emblems of the new democratic South Africa. In fact, protest action has been so frequent and institutionalised that even government officials and business leaders are known to make provision in their calendars for the so-called strike season.
But by becoming over-accustomed to these perennial strikes, government is in danger of regarding them as fleeting inconveniences, lasting no more than a couple of weeks in the year. To do so, would be to grossly underestimate the deadly impact of the unresolved issues, which remain at the heart of the unremitting protests and which if unchecked, could ignite a raging war in the not-so-distant future.
Except that the said future is not so distant. In fact, for the generation that was marginalised by apartheid, the future has arrived and it is certainly not what they expected it to be. The “freedom generation” remains landless and jobless. The democratic future they fought for may have arrived but the decent houses and the better paying jobs, which they rightly assumed would accompany democracy, have not yet come.
Going by what has happened elsewhere when long-overdue freedom aspirations remain unfulfilled, the pent-up frustration and disillusionment, can morph into anarchy. In 1999, when the breaking point arrived in Zimbabwe, scores of poor villagers, emboldened by a mix of genuine war veterans and some rabble rousers, descended on land which had been taken away from them many generations before. The result was one of the most chaotic and violent episodes of land reform on the continent.
South Africa’s poor, being citizens of one of the most unequal societies on the planet are, with each waking day, approaching that breaking point at an alarmingly faster rate than Zimbabweans did. From shacks they arise every morning to live a life of appalling contradictions, working as underlings in posh establishments and returning home in the evenings to teeming townships that are in more ways than one, a motif for social injustice. Those with some semblance of decent housing are only too aware that there is a better standard of living elsewhere on the other side of town. But try as they may, the life they aspire to, is certainly not the life they will attain on their pitiful wages.
However, no matter how justified their demands, in allowing people to die, striking civil servants have gone a step too far. Not only have they gone too far, but they have revealed the extent to which they have allowed the victim mentality to poison not just their world-view but their respect for the sanctity of other people’s lives.
The danger that lies ahead in all of this is that because the revolution of the poor working classes has lost its humane soul, it could be seized upon by other radical elements in positions of power, who will manipulate their demands now tainted by heartless protests to ends more horrific and ugly than what we have already witnessed. In the ensuing mayhem, the rallying cry which propelled the ANC to power in 1994 — “a better life for all” — can only fade into a distant echo of promises unkept and spurned loyalties.
In order to pre-empt an ugly revolt by its bitter and disillusioned supporters, the time has now come for the ANC to live the true ethos of its current “together we can do more” campaign. Otherwise, should the soulless revolution of the have-nots be allowed to run its full and self-destructive course, then the worst is not behind us; it is yet to come.