South Africa’s challenge: Achieving social cohesion and economic equality — an interview with Dr Israel Kodiaga

A legacy of racial segregation combined with poor governance has the Rainbow Nation headed for extremism

South Africa’s reputation for diversity and its high level of development compared to the rest of Africa obscure a nation falling into turmoil. Two decades removed from apartheid, a faltering economy and a leadership more concerned with self-enrichment than prudent policies has the country’s society divided once again. IOA discusses these issues with the head of IOA East Africa, Prof. Israel Kodiaga, who also serves as the director of Programmes, Research and Strategic Development at the African Centre for International Studies and is a key consultant for South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

South Africa's President Jacob Zuma
Corruption has flourished under South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Photo courtesy GovernmentZA/Flickr

Although South Africa clearly remains the most developed nation in Sub-Saharan Africa, the country’s economy is stagnating. What effect do economic issues have on social tension within a conflicted society?

There can be absolutely no gainsaying that with a robust economy and massive opportunities like the Republic of South Africa (RSA/SA) is blessed with, many of her problems are self-inflicted. You have a huge number of young people that are jobless, both by design and by misfortune or fate. Those who are jobless by design survive by exploiting welfare payments from the government – some 16 million South Africans now receive welfare benefits – to enable them to eschew work and become lazy. As long as you know you will get some money at the end of the day you can afford to sit in front of your house and idle around and get drawn into a life of criminality, often fueled by high levels of substance abuse. 

However, South Africa’s unique history has led to a situation where the attitude of black South Africans, and some whites, is largely atavistic toward work. The black man still associates work with servitude, seeing it as a continuation of apartheid. They do not recognise that you have to work in order to eat and in order to live. They think that working makes them a lesser people, and they think working is a problem. For years, black communities believed that they were being forced to work in mines, believed that they were being forced to work on farms, believed that they were being forced to do all this labour – therefore labour is bad.

While the whites, using religion to justify vice, propagated the belief that they were designed by God to come to Africa and that the blacks were created to work for them (religious Darwinism). That is the genesis of why people in South Africa don’t like work – they’ve associated it with suffering, they’ve associated it with punishment, and therefore the later generation, the so-called ‘Born Frees’ (those born after the fall of apartheid in 1994) look at it like ‘we’re now free, we don’t have to work’. Large portions of black youth have a general attitude of wanting the white man’s lifestyle, but not working for it.

Has the ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), been complicit in this?

In contiguity, South Africa’s government, run by the ANC, is not innocent in this. During the anti-apartheid struggle, the ANC promised heaven to South Africa’s oppressed black population – good jobs, good housing – and you see, they were propagating communist ideology. That, to say the least, was an ideal. The reality is an entirely different kettle of fish. Now in power, the ANC faces a serious dilemma. Firstly, communism as espoused by the party during the years of struggle is no longer tenable. The very same immutable dialectical laws earlier on identified by Karl Marx have come to haunt and destroy the ‘ideal’. ANC came to power long after communism had already collapsed in its bastions, so essentially the world is today very different. Common sense has it that you cannot build a sustainable society wherein people receive an equal share of something they did not work for equally.

Secondly, ANC leadership has become thoroughly corrupt and her earlier ideals have been obfuscated by the trappings of power and status. They found that they could live in a big house, drive a big car, have a huge bank account and be a director of so many companies without really having to do anything. In a word, South Africans have been defrauded.

How could the ANC have better consolidated the political gains made with the abolition of apartheid?

All along, South Africans were asking for two things: One, free Mandela. Two, give everyone our democratic rights. However, the calls for Mandela’s freedom subsumed independence. On 11 February 1990, when Mandela walked out of prison, black South Africans danced in the streets and declared that they were free. But, of course, they were not suddenly free just because Mandela was no longer jailed. To be free means to have political enfranchisement in combination with access to economic opportunity, social justice, health care and education among a forest of rights.

What actually happened when Mandela was freed was that, in essence, apartheid was actually entrenched further. The black majority were given Mandela in exchange for a full menu of rights. The white elites said “fine, take Mandela,” but they had already stashed their money in places like Sandton in Johannesburg, or Camps Bay in Cape Town, keeping their money safe in property.

Meanwhile, what happens to Mandela? He’s called an icon and receives invitations to be hosted by heads of state around the world. The great Icon spent his very useful and productive part of a new and independent South Africa dancing in foreign capitals; Buckingham Palace, the White House, New Delhi, China and so on. Domestically, Mandela never had a chance to put in place the necessary social mechanisms and infrastructure to re-integrate South Africa’s diverse social groups and make the country cohesive. That, therefore, means that there was already a problem.

The ANC also failed to come up with policies to make the country more cohesive?

The powers that be knew that Mandela was already too old, so that even if he did take over it would be mostly symbolic and there would not be much change. That was dangerous. There was no system designed and put in place by the ANC upon assuming power to make sure that South Africa is cohesive. There was only a system to placate blacks temporarily and make them feel as if they were in power, which was false. If you go to the capital Pretoria, I challenge you to tell me which building belongs to a black man. Not even one! And yet, they say it is their country. Even in Johannesburg, the few blacks that have become property owners and accumulated a certain level of wealth on par with the whites are those that have been able to take advantage of black economic empowerment (BEE) schemes. BEE is a very easy system to manipulate and exploit. All you need to do is strategically shift around company shares and buy off previously subordinate black employees through fake promotions and offer them large expense accounts, and then have handlers prep them for directors’ meetings. 

The world was shocked by xenophobic attacks that spread throughout South Africa in 2015, in which five foreigners and three South Africans were killed and tens of thousands of foreign nationals were displaced. With South Africa’s economic uncertainty and sometimes controversial governance by the ANC set to continue into the future, do you feel that those attacks were a preview of more violent outbursts to come?

That black South Africans would turn hammer and tongs against fellow Africans from some countries who did not only pay dearly for standing with the ANC but also hosted huge South African populations is gross. Xenophobia is nothing more than cry-baby syndrome, because the jobs have been taken by hardworking and enterprising Zimbabweans, Somalis and Mozambicans. Foreign communities living in SA are being subjected to violence by fellow blacks. In contiguity, the black leadership that has failed to provide jobs are happy, because the focus of attention is off their inability to govern while the public and media are distracted by xenophobic attacks elsewhere. So the inner circles of black leadership in power will subtly encourage the xenophobia, or at least do next to nothing to stop it.

Therefore, I do foresee violent extremism happening in South Africa because the conditions on the ground are already there; they’re ripe for conflict. On top of the anger and humiliation that was instilled in South Africa’s black population during apartheid, the xenophobic attacks in April were dress rehearsals for extremism to come. The whole thing has the feeling of a sort of distorted revolution. When frustrated and deprived communities in South Africa are done killing the Zimbabweans, the Mozambicans, the Tanzanians and the Kenyans, they will start killing each other, because their history has taught them that violence and disruption are the only available means to the ends they desire (this is political cannibalism, pure and simple).

But extremism can be stopped. Most people just don’t want to make it their responsibility to do so. Citizens must choose to become part of the solution as opposed to part of the problem. There remains an ‘us versus them’ mentality in South Africa, which will take the country nowhere. For example, the ANC government has adopted a very antagonistic foreign policy – it is the responsibility of South Africans to confront the ANC and say this is wrong, regardless of race. The ANC cannot call itself a champion of human rights while continually referring to the US and Britain as imperialists and so on, because without a doubt, in the world as we know it now, you will need these nations, especially because they are pillars of the UN Security Council. Furthermore, the ANC continues to cozy up to dictators in Africa or repressive governments in China and Russia. As the saying goes, ‘Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you who you are’.

How would you describe South Africa’s foreign policy at the start of 2016?

South Africa’s foreign policy continues to go through important changes. South Africa’s government must as of necessity start evaluating the impact of its policy decisions in the light of long-term prospects. The danger of a foreign policy based on a lack of clear values and uncertainty or unwillingness to clearly define national interests, is a directionless and ad hoc policy approach.

A more cautious, stable and permanent approach to issues of foreign policy will result in more predictable foreign policy decisions and actions. This will be to the advantage of South Africa, because it will provide everyone associated with the country with a better idea of her interests. This need not be at the expense of flexibility or creativity.

Interview conducted by ACM Associate Editor, Kyle Hiebert