By MTHULISI SIBANDA in Johannesburg
FROM a pariah state during apartheid, to a fully-fledged democratic nation at independence (1994), then recently plunging into lawlessness, South Africa has come full circle.
Its vaunted status as a peacemaker and key player in global politics is dented, condemning the country to an unenviable position of a proverbial hypocrite that cannot remove the log in its eye but attempts to take out the speck in its brother’s eye.
A series of unprecedented violence in recent years, which has peaked with the deadly looting and vandalism in some parts of the country lately, have soiled the status as a mediator.
The infighting tearing the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the continent’s oldest liberation movement, leading to the anarchy, and these divisions spilling to the government level during the response to the mayhem is exacerbating the Southern African country’s woes.
Such has been the degeneration into chaos that even countries that are regarded as pariahs in the continent have the temerity to call South Africa into order.
The capitulation from the lofty position as a model of post-independence African democracy and stability has been so spectacular the country can be mentioned in the same breath as countries that are enduring wars.
Even multilateral institutions, including the United Nations (UN), of which South Africa is a founding member, are concerned.
The arrest of former president, the controversial Jacob Zuma, for contempt of court after his snub of a commission probing allegations of corruption during his reign (2009 to 2018) has been the powder keg that has resulted in widespread violence that has left more than 200 people dead and property worth billions of dollars up in smoke.
More than 3 000 people have been arrested after days of rampant looting and destruction of infrastructure.
Zuma’s arrest heightened the factionalism in ANC, a party that has been at the helm since the demise of apartheid in 1994.
On the eve of his arrest, the divisive politician (79) accused the government of dragging the country back to the horrendous days of apartheid where critics were jailed without trial.
It is believed some individuals in the faction sympathetic to Zuma and opposed to the current party and state leader, Cyril Ramaphosa, are the instigators of what the latter has termed an insurrection.
By the government’s own admission, the response to the resultant violence was inadequate, with law enforcers outnumbered and state security caught flatfooted.
This in a country lauded over the years for its role and commitment to peacekeeping missions in the African continent.
At independence, conflict resolution topped the agenda of the new administration.
South Africa is one of the most vocal critics of the crises in Palestine and Western Sahara.
At the peak of its powers, South Africa was pivotal in mediation efforts in Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), and Lesotho.
Zuma himself was the facilitator of the Burundi peace process during his time as the deputy president.
His predecessor as president, Thabo Mbeki, also brokered a peace deal between former Zimbabwe strongman Robert Mugabe (now late) and his brutalised rival (Morgan Tsvangira – Movement for Democratic Change) in neighbouring Zimbabwe in 2008.
These breakthroughs seem a distant memory as the squabbles in the ANC play themselves out in the courts, depicting the once-esteemed party as a dysfunctional movement that cannot even abide by its own constitution.
Ramaphosa stoked tribal tensions when he alleged “ethnic mobilisation” in pro-Zuma unrest. KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and parts of Gauteng are seen as Zuma’s strongholds, to an extent, along tribal lines.
Such a statement was unprecedented in a nation that prides itself in its unity in diversity. While ethnic differences have been the source of conflict around the continent, including where South Africa has intervened, the country has remained exempt from such upheaval post-independence.
Ramaphosa played the ethnic mobilisation card before the insurrection narrative took root.
This week, as tensions eased in the hotspot areas of Gauteng and KZN that were scenes of the “insurrection,” divisions returned to haunt the leadership, this time in government.
On Sunday, Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula contradicted President Cyril Ramaphosa by refusing to label the upheaval as an insurrection. She has since backtracked and toed her principal’s line.
Another rift emerged between Police Minister Bheki Cele and State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo.
Cele reported never received an intelligence report from the State Security Council, contrary to the assertions by his fellow cabinet colleague.
The official opposition, Democratic Alliance (DA), denounced the contradictions as “more than a communications crisis.”
“They symbolise the incoherent handling of the government response to the violent outbreaks in KZN and Gauteng,” said Solly Malatsi, Shadow Minister for the Presidency.
He urged Ramaphosa to “quell the mutiny rising in his ranks” by shuffling the cabinet and getting rid of “deadweight” ministers.
The condemnation of the violence has also come from outside South Africa’s borders, including, of all countries, Eswatini.
The neighbouring country, also enduring its worst civil strife post-independence, and enduring criticism for its tainted democratic record, garnered the morality to condemn the crisis.
The under-fire King Mswati III nonetheless mentioned South Africa’s now-fading status as a peacemaker.
“We were equally shocked when we witnessed this happening in South Africa because when we go through such, our hope is normally directed to our neighbours,” the monarch stated.
Moussa Faki Mahamat, the African Union Commission chairperson strongly condemned the violence.
The statement read like a riot act to a country at war.
Mahamat denounced the “appalling scenes.”
He recently called for an urgent restoration of order, peace and stability in the country in full respect of the rule of law.
“He (Mahamat) stresses that failure to do so can have grave impacts not only in the country but the region (Southern African Development Community) as a whole,” a spokesperson said.
The UN echoed the sentiments.
Only this year, South Africa completed its tenure as the AU chair, a reign held under the mantra of “Silencing the Guns” in the continent.
Mahamat’s predecessor is South Africa’s Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is the ex-wife of the jailed former president, and is a minister in Ramaphosa’s cabinet.
Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma were involved in a bruising battle for the presidency of the ANC, which the former narrowly won in 2018.
The recent problems have amplified other human rights crises in South Africa, including failure to uphold the liberties of children.
At least 30 schools were destroyed during the violence, including one for disabled children and another burnt to the ground.
More than 1 700 schools across the country were burgled and vandalism during the COVID-19 lockdown.
About 750 000 have dropped out of school by May 2021, figures synonymous with countries in conflict, as is the statistics indicating a sexual offence is committed every ten minutes.
“We are gravely concerned for the future of children in South Africa. In the midst of our turmoil we are forgetting about our children and they are pushed even further behind,” Steve Miller, Save the Children South Africa CEO, said.
More than 200 families have been displaced in KZN, in scenes reminiscent of the sporadic attacks against “foreign” nationals.
Brand South Africa called on citizens to play their part in restoring peace and unity.
“This (violence) goes against our values as a nation and as President Ramaphosa said, this is not who we are,” Brand South Africa chairperson, Thandi Tobias, said.
At the commemoration of Nelson Mandela Day on Sunday, Ramaphosa lauded South African people as “the heroes of which Madiba (Mandela’s clan name) once spoke; the people who make peace and build where it is easy to break down and destroy.” – CAJ News