Forty years after the Soweto uprising, South Africa remains a country of unparalleled paradoxes. The abolition of formal apartheid transformed the country in fundamental ways but, beneath the surface, apartheid’s echoes continue to resound.
After a period of initial optimism, the past five years have seen a worrying decline in the fortunes of young South Africans. Student movements have been reignited in response to a growing fear among young people that their futures are at stake.
Youth unemployment, along with state corruption and repression, threatens the very future of our democratic compact. While the emergence of a more competitive political landscape offers hope, the aspirations of the 1976 generation remain unfulfilled. No assessment of South Africa’s current situation can begin without a focus on the economy.
Forty years on, the data makes for worrying reading. Youth unemployment is an unmitigated crisis. Over the past five years, youth inactivity rates – a measure for how many people have given up looking for work – have increased from 25% to 27%. Thirty-one thousand fewer young people are employed today than they were in 2009. Sixty-six percent of people between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed, and of South Africa’s approximately 5-million unemployed people, 3.4-million – about three quarters – are young people.
Far from abating, the problem is worsening: the first quarter of 2016 was the worst on record for South African unemployment.
Even those who are employed often suffer under exploitative conditions. Take farm workers, for instance.
A 2011 Human Rights Watch report, entitled Ripe With Abuse, reveals that South African farm workers exist in some of the most deplorable working conditions found anywhere on the planet: the minimum wage in the agricultural sector is the lowest in the world at an incredible $1 an hour. Twenty years later, there is still no major farm workers’ union in South Africa.
Transformation in economic ownership also remains elusive. Fourteen years ago, the South African government set a lofty target: the mining industry would be 25% black-owned by 2014. Today, South Africa has fallen far short: the mining industry is still only 8% black-owned, and this sliver is dominated by just three companies. According to the Commission for Employment Equity, 68% of top managerial jobs were held by white South Africans in 2015, 76% of which were held by white men. Two decades on, just 8.5% (19-million hectares) of commercial agricultural land has been redistributed to South Africa’s black majority. Thirty thousand farms control all commercial agricultural production; mutatis mutandis, every strategic sector of the economy remains in the hands of the same small, nepotistic elite.
These examples are symptomatic of an economy contaminated from top to bottom with political risk, borne out of the world’s highest levels of economic inequality. This indicates a deeper, more dangerous development: the resilience of economic apartheid in the shadows of an apparently open and democratic society. Apartheid’s legal edifice was removed, but the inner economic workings of the system continue into the present. Apartheid has become privatised and decentralised; if you stamp it out in one place, it rears its head in another. It is in trying to get a bank loan, or trying to buy insurance. It is in the prison system and in the workplace. It is in economic ownership and managerial control. This situation would no doubt disappoint the youth of 1976.
Coupled with this is the persistence of state repression. Apartheid had massacres; South Africa today has massacres. Nearly four years ago, 34 miners were brutally killed by the police at Marikana. A long and gruesome commission of inquiry has only created more ambiguity.
In 2014, without much fuss, the commission was shown pictures of miners with cables tied around their legs, shot in the backs of their heads. The police continue to claim it was “self-defence”.
More saddening than the massacre itself was what it revealed: poor black miners living in conditions just as bad as – or worse than – the ones they suffered before “freedom”. Camera footage, like mirrors reflecting South Africa back at itself, depicted towering platinum mine shafts alongside shack-ridden labour camps. The lives of South Africa’s 400 000 black mineworkers continue to resemble something out of an apartheid documentary. And the ANC, mired in conflicts of interest, is unable to credibly stand on the side of the vulnerable.
The repressive features of the apartheid state have also continued in other ways. More than nine people continue to die in police custody per year, according to a report released by the Independent Police Investigative Directorate in 2013. While Marikana made headlines, the police killed a staggering 485 South Africans that year – more than were killed in the United States over the same period. The repeated forceful and illegal ejection of democratically elected MPs from Parliament for challenging the unaccountability of the president is further evidence of a state prepared to use illegitimate force to defend itself.
Similar repressive tactics were used against students during the 2015 #FeesMustFall campaign, with the University of the Western Cape turned into a veritable war zone beyond the glare of the media’s focus on Wits, Rhodes and UCT. There are important echoes between the uprisings of 1976 and the student protests of 2015.
As in 1976, where education policy was used as a mirror for society, so the revolts over fees and colonial symbolism have reopened debates about economic inequality and institutional racism. And while the repression of the student movement has not yet been lethal, the state’s decision to charge protestors calling for free education outside Parliament with treason should give us pause for reflection, even if the charges were later withdrawn.
Where the economy and the state disappoint, there is reason for hope on the political front. Forty years after the Soweto uprising, the beginnings of a competitive political party environment are beginning to take shape. For the first time, the ANC has been presented with a sustained challenge from its left flank. Despite obtaining just 6% in the general election of 2014, the EFF has been able to magnify its reach through a dual strategy of parliamentary protest and legal confrontation. This strategy has hindered the ANC’s dominance over the legislature. Through theatrical parliamentary protest, the EFF has also increased public interest in Parliament.
This has put pressure on the DA to compete with the EFF for the political spotlight. Ironically, this competitive pressure has increased the overall effectiveness of the opposition, though each party serves a different constituency.
The importance of the strength of the opposition at this juncture of our democracy is central, because any party given power for more than twenty years is likely to become complacent. It may well be that a surge in opposition support of even 5% could force the ANC to confront its own inadequacies in the face of possible further electoral losses.
A tri-polar political balance may actually be virtuous, to the extent that it escapes the shortcomings of a two-party system in which both parties agree on major policies, such as in the United States.
Tri-polarity would also keep each pole of the triangle on its toes, as there would always be the possibility of any two poles uniting against the remaining one. The downside of a tri-polar political establishment is that it could descend into coalitional gridlock, or be prone to significant volatility. In the long term, one could imagine the DA and the ANC uniting just as quickly as one could imagine coalitions between the EFF and the ANC.
By the same token, the EFF and the DA could decide to exclude the ANC over the short-term to reduce its political dominance. The 2016 Local Government Elections were therefore an important barometer. As the ANC lost support in key metropoles, this lead to the beginning of a volatile, but necessary era of coalition politics in key areas.
June 16 is often marked as a day of celebration, but young South Africans remain marginalised on the outskirts of the South African economy. State repression continues to affect them disproportionately.
And, as new youth movements rise inside and outside the formal political arena, nothing short of a radical shift in South Africa’s direction will resolve these tensions.
For too long, young South Africans have been told that “things could be worse”; it is time for all of us to realise that they should be better.