By Mondli Makhanya
Remember those bad old days when we would all perch in front of our television sets or be glued to our radios listening to President Cyril Ramaphosa deliver his “family meeting” speeches about the nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic?
The “family meetings” were initially reassuring, as they indicated that we were being soundly led in the war against that damned virus. But then they became very irritating, the nation feeling that the national coronavirus command council was treating us like toddlers with all its prescriptions on how we should live.
They told us what not to wear, where not to go, what not to do and what not to eat. Hell, they even turned us into a nation of Mormons with their bans on pleasurable habits. The little control freaks really enjoyed making our lives a misery, and did so with so much enthusiasm and seemingly boundless energy.
Today, South Africans are asking why that same energy is not being applied to tackling the meltdown that the country is facing now.
There is this tangible feeling in the air that something is about to happen, and that, whatever it is, it might be worse and more sustained than the mayhem we experienced in July last year.
Former president Thabo Mbeki alluded to this atmosphere this week when speaking at the memorial service of ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte (a really nasty specimen who has been portrayed in various obituaries and tributes as a huggable teddy bear, when in fact she was a terrible little troll).
Mbeki told attendees that South Africa could be headed for its own chapter of the Arab Spring, an uprising that spread like wildfire throughout north Africa and the Middle East just over a decade ago.
He said he had fears that, because there was “no national plan to address these challenges of poverty, unemployment, inequality”, the conditions were perfect for an insurrectory match to be lit.
The former statesman said:
You can’t have so many people unemployed, so many people poor, people facing lawlessness, faced with the leadership in which ANC people are called corrupt. One day, it’s going to explode.
He lamented the lawlessness that is gripping the country, saying South Africa’s leadership was doing nothing about it.
Every day you see all of these terrible crimes being committed. Yesterday, people with guns just marched into a supermarket in Benoni in broad daylight. What are we doing about that?
Mbeki was so right. Last July, we were aghast when the country went up in flames following the incarceration of Jacob Zuma.
Troops were mobilised and extra policemen and spies were sent into Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the two provinces most affected by the violence.
The security cluster swung into gear (after the fact) and ministers and top government officials were giving regular briefings about the situation on the ground. It felt as if Armageddon was truly upon us.
This July, we have witnessed carnage on an incredible scale as American gangland-style mass shootings came to South Africa.
In the space of a week, about 30 people were slain by gunmen in taverns and on the streets of our cities.
It did not seem as if the shootings were random, as the gunmen targeted specific places at times when they would inflict the most damage.
Two things stood out about this bloody July: the brazen nature of the killings, indicating that the perpetrators did not fear being caught, and the blasé response from the authorities to the atrocities.
Aside from Police Minister Bheki Cele (who so loves cameras that he would attend every post office opening if he were in charge of that portfolio) making an appearance, the killings did not seem to move government. It was just another month in bloody South Africa.
Ramaphosa continued being his lazy, dull and irrelevant self; his deputy, David Mabuza, inhaled his stuff and stared blankly into the distance; Defence Minister Thandi Modise attended the unveiling of the tombstones of her dead pigs; and the rest of the ageing Cabinet helped their grandchildren assemble Lego sets.
What this government is not recognising is that the normalisation of lawlessness is the very fuel that fed the fires of last July.
Prior to that uprising, we had become used to the destruction of public property, the blockading of highways, the sabotage of key infrastructure and wanton person-on-person violence.
The disrespect for authority was par for the course among young and old. So when that match went “QUSH!” last year, it was not hard to get people who did not even believe in the cause to join in the mayhem.
Today we find ourselves in an even more brittle situation than we were in last year. High unemployment, the rising cost of living, casual criminal and political violence and the loss of faith in the political establishment are combining to create a potent cocktail of discontent.
So there is definitely this feeling in the air that something big is about to happen and all that is required is a spark. The violence of this month could just well be the portend to that explosion.
So, while Ramaphosa and his band of septuagenarians and octogenarians do what old people do, the country is on tenterhooks, waiting for that scary moment. Oh, this nightmarish fear.
Mondli Makhanya is Editor-in-Chief of City Press