Kenan Malik in Pandaemonium:
“It feels qualitatively different this time.” There are few people I know in South Africa who don’t think this about the carnage now engulfing the nation. Violence was institutionalised during the years of apartheid. In the post-apartheid years, it has rarely been far from the surface – police violence, gangster violence, the violence of protest. What is being exposed now, however, is just how far the social contract that has held the nation together since the end of apartheid has eroded.
Many aspects of the disorder are peculiar to South Africa. There are also themes with wider resonance. Events in the country demonstrate in a particularly acute fashion a phenomenon we are witnessing in different ways and in different degrees of severity across the globe: the old order breaking down, with little to fill the void but sectarian movements or identity politics.
The immediate cause of the violence was the 15-month sentence imposed on former president Jacob Zuma for refusing to testify at a corruption inquiry. The protests in Zuma’s stronghold of KwaZulu-Natal have, however, morphed into something bigger and more menacing. A combination of people made desperate by poverty and hunger, gangsters seeking to profit from mayhem and political activists settling scores has brought unparalleled turmoil to the country.