Social & Community, Youth, Community Development, Sept. 6, 2021, 5:22 p.m.

Government urged to collaborate with civil society to rebuild

Author: ACTIVATE! Change Drivers

While the shadow of the civil unrest in South Africa will impact the economy and business confidence for some time to come, what of the healing that needs to take place and societal interventions at a grassroots level to ensure it never happens again?

ACTIVATE! Change Drivers, which has a network of 4,500 young social activists across South Africa,  recently hosted a webinar to discuss the issue of, ‘Rebuilding after the unrest – what are our options?’, with the Democracy Development Program. On the panel were Bonolo Makgale, University of Pretoria Centre for Human Rights; Kimera Chetty, a consultant with risk assessment firm, Africa Practice; and columnist Andile Zulu.


Facilitator of the event, Patrick Mcobothi, said the purpose of the programme was to evaluate the nature of the protests; what the unrest revealed; and the role of South Africa’s leadership. “It is important for Activate to be involved in a discussion like this, as young people seemed to be at the forefront of much of the looting and chaos. So, our young activators wanted to unpack the issues and find solutions to stop this from happening in the future. Over 70,000 jobs were lost in the chaos and that affects many young people. So much damage has been done and as a country, we cannot afford this kind of thing. We need to share innovation and ideas to stop it happening again.”


The unrest that took place mid-July in South Africa and led to a state of disaster being declared in KZN, was avoidable, said Chetty. The warning signs were there, she said, in the fractious party politics, municipal failures, and rising social tensions amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. “We acted too late. Intelligence services appeared to act in an uncoordinated way with defense and police forces. And in the aftermath, government response to the impact on business, and society was delayed.”


Makgale said the recent unrest as well as unrest over years, is due in part to the unfulfilled promises of 1994. South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world, with more than half of all South Africans experiencing poverty and hardship; one in four South Africans going to bed hungry; and seven in 10 young South Africans are unemployed. She said before we can talk about rebuilding and moving forward, we should ask where are we moving too?


“The idea of state building didn’t end in 1994, it is ongoing. We need to acknowledge the fault lines that exist in our society and address the very real issues at the root of unrest. We see the scapegoating of the poor.” She suggested that the state’s reactionary approach to policy making meant that South Africa would remain in a loop where unrest could be triggered at the drop of a hat.


“There is a need for significant rebuilding of peri-urban and rural economies to break the poverty trap. The lack of social infrastructure affects people daily. The South African Government needs to be more creative in their approach - perhaps a collaborative approach with meaningful engagement with civil society when drafting policy; but also offering technical support when these policies are implemented,” Makgale said.


Chetty posed the question, ‘Will it happen again?’; and warned that the speed at which the unrest spread, exposed South Africa’s vulnerabilities in the extreme fragmentation of the political sphere and government. “Unless we take ownership of how we want to be represented by those with the mandate to do so, this episode is likely to recur.”


Chetty outlined the five key priorities for Government, that Africa Practice has drafted:

  1. Guarantee policy certainty: Markets are not moral arbiters. Investors react to instability. Be transparent and consultative; clandestine and unhealthy public-private relationships bear the roots of state capture. Support policy positions that drive investment by allowing for a conducive and enabling environment to do business.
  2. Prioritise the economy: Invest in building the capacity of South Africa’s youth, digital innovation, and partnering with industry to create jobs and skills. Access to the market is only meaningful if people can realistically compete for opportunity.
  3. Heal society: The fault lines of the rainbow nation have been laid bare. The system of Apartheid may have been formally dismantled, but spatial and economic exclusion remain a reality. True reconciliation will be messy, uncomfortable, and hard. But in so far as race, class, and gender are still determinative of social progress, it is a road worth travelling.
  4. Clean up house: The safety net of liberation rhetoric to secure votes is coming apart at the seams. The corruption of the country’s security cluster – seen in the lack of coordination and stunted response of intelligence, defense, and the police, to intercept and prevent recent events – means the country can be held to ransom to political insurrection. The ANC’s majoritarian grip, buttressed by weak and fragmented opposition, has cemented internal complacency.
  5. Rebuild: South Africa does not need more resilience tests. The massacre at Marikana; the tragedy of Life Esidimeni; and the failure of the social grants payment system are but a number of avoidable scandals destined for repetition unless we rebuild meaningfully. Commit to the realisation of a basic income grant; address local government failure; and be inclusive when determining South Africa’s development agenda.


Makgale said policy making processes should be open to civil society organisations and there must be an intentional effort from the state to ensure that both civil society and business are part of this process. Communities most affected by poverty and unrest must be included in the process. “We cannot continue to have conversations about those who are marginalised without them in the room,” she urged.


“Meaningful rebuilding is a collaborative effort and there is a space for all stakeholders to be involved in this process. The State should be at the forefront of these efforts. The causes of unrest in South Africa are typically structural in nature and therefore on the fault lines of inequality, based on class, race and other factors. A structural approach would be best as we consider ways to remedy what is happening in our communities; ways in which to reimagine our democracy. We need creative ways to reformulate a new South Africa,” Makgale concluded.