President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa is now claiming that the unrest that has wracked his country since July 9 is an organized insurrection. “It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated, and well-planned attack on our democracy,” he said in an address to the nation. Twelve “persons of interest” have been identified, he said, and at least one of these ringleaders has already been taken into custody.
It would be convenient for Ramaphosa if this eruption of lawlessness, which has left more than 200 dead and threatened food and gas supplies in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal, were the work of a dozen malcontents. It would even be tolerable if it were a political protest aimed at freeing former president Jacob Zuma, whose arrest in connection with corruption charges was the spark for the riots.
Unfortunately, talk of an “insurrection” is a distraction from the real cause of the violence, which is deeper and harder to solve. South African society has been lurching toward dysfunction for a long time. This month’s violence is a sign that the country’s chronic problems may have finally reached a breaking point.
Since the beginning of African National Congress (ANC) rule in 1994, South Africa has been the anticolonial movement’s great success story. While other African countries fell victim to coups and civil wars, South Africa carried on. Yes, it was a one-party state, corruption was rife, violent crime was out of control, and unemployment hovered between 25 and 33 percent—but somehow the country muddled through.
Alas, muddling through is a tactic that can only work for so long. There are about 14 million registered taxpayers in South Africa, out of a population of nearly 60 million. The bulk of income tax revenue comes from just 574,000 individuals. The ANC’s wager has always been that this tiny tax base could be squeezed for all it’s worth in order to fund lavish social benefits for the rest of the population.
Ramaphosa has articulated this gamble explicitly, according to the posthumous memoir of Mario Oriani-Ambrosini, a longtime MP for the Inkatha Freedom Party who died in 2014. During negotiations over the post-apartheid constitution in 1994, Ambrosini wrote, “Ramaphosa told me of the ANC’s 25-year strategy to deal with the whites: it would be like boiling a frog alive, which is done by raising the temperature very slowly.” Under majority rule, “the black majority would pass laws transferring wealth, land, and economic power from white to black slowly and incrementally, until the whites lost all they had gained in South Africa, but without taking too much from them at any given time to cause them to rebel or fight.”
Ramaphosa got the timing right, give or take a few years, but he forgot about the third option: Rather than fight or stay and be boiled, the white minority could always just pick up and leave. When Nelson Mandela came to power, doomsayers predicted a mass exodus similar to that of the Algerian pieds-noirs. Contrary to forecasts, millions of white South Africans stayed, either because they were committed to making the “Rainbow Nation” experiment work or simply because they were too settled to emigrate. That generation is now dying, and their children are constrained by no such inertia.
For a long time, South Africa’s natural resource wealth worked in the ANC’s favor. Gold and diamonds are where they are; you can’t outsource a mine the way you can a factory. However, in 2020, AngloGold Ashanti, a successor company of Anglo American, sold its last remaining operations in South Africa, which meant the end of an unbroken streak that had lasted since Ernest Oppenheimer founded the company a century ago. Even a mining firm’s patience has limits.
The taxpaying minority’s endurance might be greater if in exchange for their money they received basic services, but these days they cannot even count on the electricity staying on. Every suburban home in Johannesburg has a generator in case of “load shedding,” or unscheduled blackouts. Most also have high walls topped with barbed wire or motion sensors. With the police unable or unwilling to do anything about break-ins and robberies, home security has become a luxury for those who can afford to buy their own. South Africa has three times as many private security guards as police.
Last week, Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula admitted that government forces did not even try to protect shopping malls from looters because they assumed private security would take care of it. “It never occurred to us that we should move to areas such as malls, particularly because in malls, anywhere, there is always a contract between business itself and private security companies,” she explained. Even if order is restored, a dangerous lesson has been learned about the state’s inability to perform the basic functions of government in a crisis.
When the historian R.W. Johnson published his book How Long Will South Africa Survive? in 2015, he was mocked for his sensationalist title. All of the problems cited in the book—corruption, tribal tensions, a bloated public sector, gangsterism, political assassinations—had been around for years without turning South Africa into a failed state, critics said. But time may yet prove Johnson right. Ramaphosa is a weak president, well suited to a caretaker regime. If he pardons Zuma, as some have urged him to do, he might be able to end the current violence and restore the pre-COVID status quo. The question is how long that status quo can last. It is not sustainable forever.