What an extraordinary and painful month July was for South Africa. Like many, we at the Foundation initially watched events unfold with a swirl of sadness, pain, fear, confusion and anxiety. Making sense of it all was the immediate challenge; followed quickly by the imperative to work out what to do. If Madiba taught us anything, it is that we cannot look the other way in moments of extremity, but instead must step up and take action.
Shops looted; infrastructure torched; our youth shot and killed; people left wounded, with wounds which are both physically visible and those those which are not; the loss of livelihoods; and more. Words alone mean little in these contexts. Analyses and explanations do not help communities who are confused, hungry and angry.
Walking the filthy streets of Soweto with garbage bags and cleaning the damaged malls after the looting left us torn as we tried to make sense of how we had got here! Days later, as we drove around some of the damaged centres in KwaZulu-Natal and listened to law-abiding citizens telling stories of how their already precarious existence has been made worse in just three days of mayhem, we were left with a sense of unspeakable pain.
In looking back on all that happened, it is tempting to foreground the breakdown in the rule of law, the wave of lawlessness in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the tragic loss of life, the shortcomings of structures of the state, and the failures of leadership at many levels. It is tempting also to begin defining our society, indeed defining ourselves, in these terms. They are real, of course. Things that we have to face up to and reckon with. But we can choose instead to define ourselves by the qualities of leadership which manifested themselves at community level, as people took responsibility for acting against mayhem, joining peacemaking endeavours, supporting law enforcement in protecting infrastructure, and initiating clean-up and other recovery interventions. This is leadership in action.
In the last two weeks we have been privileged to work with partners across sectors who choose to define themselves in this way and who are committed to finding sustainable solutions to the problems confronting us. Community-based organisations, other structures of civil society, business and government officials have come to the party. For the moment our focus is still on emergency relief work and short-term recovery through Each1Feed1 and other Mandela Day interventions. But our programmes designed to support systemic transformation (including early childhood development and anti-racism advocacy, land reform and food security) have been given an added sense of urgency. And, of course, in contexts like this, thought leadership becomes of critical importance. We simply have to think out of the box, imagine new ways of doing things, shift the paradigms which have got us stuck in the first place.
Is it time to introduce a universal basic income grant? What would a society with free access to the internet look like? How do we make the huge well of South Africa’s social capital accessible to the most vulnerable communities? What could an economy geared to provisioning rather than to growth achieve? Are shopping malls really the answer to the needs of township economies? Are existing food production and supply chains the answer to South Africa’s growing food insecurity challenge? It is questions like these which we have to be asking. If the crisis of July has focused thinking in this way, forced a concentration of energy and a willingness to ask the difficult questions, then there is hope that we can turn catastrophe into opportunity.
In the short-term, of course, interventions to address immediate needs will be essential. We welcome the reintroduction of the Covid social relief grant. We applaud the retailers who are selling products directly from their trucks in communities which were ravaged by looting. We welcome indications of community policing forums being revived – this will be of critical importance if communities are to protect their homes and streets in ways that are not about vigilante activity. We support all efforts made by law enforcement agencies to apprehend those who committed acts of violence against others, particularly those who randomly shot at others. We are disturbed by government pronouncements that recovered goods will be destroyed. Instead, creative ways should be found for redistributing these goods – for instance, electronic equipment could be donated to halfway houses for the victims of gender-based violence, or to orphanages, and so on. We must think out of the box and we must not be deaf to the cries of the poor. And, of course, we support the rapid upscaling of the Covid vaccination programme as essential to the unleashing of economic activity.
We trust that the same enthusiasm displayed in dealing with poor people who were looting shops and other facilities in July will be evident in dealing with the members of political and other elites who continue to loot our country every day. We live in hope that relief funds won't be ‘redirected’ by this kind of looting. The future is in our hands.