Fighting to Live, Living to Fight: Violent Expression and the Struggle Against Dispossession in Unequal South Africa.

By Olivia K Lwabukuna, African Institute of South Africa (AISA),

A luta continua, as expressed in the form of ‘the struggle continues’ is a phrase encountered almost every day in post-apartheid South Africa. There is an unwritten and informal understanding that the democratic era ushered in by inclusive elections in 1994, has not yet yielded freedom from fear and want for all South Africans. In fact the struggle to survive and gain access to socio-economic freedoms has intensified, often captured as the second struggle, the second revolution/liberation and the struggle after the struggle, so to speak.

Protest Nation

Post-apartheid South Africa has been marred with all kinds of protest, manifesting as mass meetings, strikes, drafting of memoranda, petitions, toyi-toying, processions, stay-aways, election boycotts, blockading of roads, land occupation, construction of barricades, burning of tyres, looting, destruction of buildings, chasing unpopular individuals out of townships, confrontations with the police, and forced resignations of elected officials. Some have captured global attention, including the 2012 Marikana miner strike that turned into a massacre, and whose investigation still has to be brought to a finding. Others have gone unnoticed, but most have garnered attention.

Protests in Post-apartheid South Africa have largely reflected one main similarity, they have been violent. Violence has been represented in physical attacks, looting, burning and destruction of property, and at times assault and death. The violent nature of the protests and the destruction that has accompanied them has been largely linked to the nature of the relationship between the people and their state. This relationship and engagement still expresses discontent through violence, which is said to be a remnant of engagement and marginalisation by the apartheid system. Of course the current state of affairs is different from the previous pre-1994 regime where avenues for engagement were limited, the relationship between the state and people was violent and the only avenue to expression and engagement was violence.

So why is it that in a post-apartheid era, in a democratic South Africa, engagement is still violent? Why do people have to burn and destroy and loot as a form of engagement? Closely linked to that query, is whether this form of engagement, violent negotiation and expression is justified and legitimate. Is violent protest and expression in the new South Africa necessary? Or has it also simply created an avenue for ‘shopping’? The looting and destruction associated with the everyday protests is at times perplexing. The evolving resort to burning institutional facilities that are actually of importance to the very communities that burn and destroy them defeats the purpose of the protests. For instance, destruction of schools, and other service facilities such as transport machinery, leaves the very communities involved stranded, and government’s hands tied. Such incidences have also resulted in losses of millions and have created an economic burden.

 Violent ‘shopping’ and destruction as a rebellion of the poor

image003image001The phenomena of looting, even where shops and shopping facilities are closed also leads to a confusion in trying to comprehend the nature, purpose and context of the protests. For a long time it has been foreign owned shops within these vicinities that find themselves looted and destroyed. It seems the protests provide an opportunity for ‘shopping’ which has become a form of expressing discontent. In most cases there is no relationship between ‘shopping’ and the causes of the protests, but because of the dispossession and lack that is found within the communities where protests take place, ‘shopping’ becomes one of the gains in a protest. One thing has become clearer as the protests have gained ground, the looting is now no longer limited to foreign owned shops, or so it seems. If this is the case, the argument that the existence of foreigners within communities limits access to economic facilities and forces sharing in a resource and job constrained environment, no longer stands. This means that looting and destruction has simply become an extension of protests in post-apartheid South Africa.

So are violent protests in South Africa an expression of discontent and a form of fight to survive and live within a very divided and unequal society, or has fighting and violence simply become a form of life and expression within a country where the majority lack, have lost hope, are bored and resentful? The two are in essence just two sides to the same coin. South Africans, especially the young, unemployed, uneducated, unhealthy and disenfranchised are fighting to live and be listened to, and at the same time fighting has become a way of life when they have nothing else to do. In a country where spatiality, lineage, class and race defines the haves and have nots, the larger half of society is simply surviving whilst witnessing the minor half living ostentatiously. These two very contrasting existences will continue to breed violent expressions and of course ‘robin-hood’ re-dispossession through looting. As the nation approaches the August Municipal elections, economic issues will be at the center of political contestations when poor and impressionable masses are set to be the potential voters. The culmination of these circumstances must be well managed to avoid electoral violence.



Olivia K Lwabukuna is a resident of Pretoria, a legal and policy specialist and an African. Twitter: @olivialwabs