Ugly images of racially fuelled clashes in Witbank, South Africa made the rounds over the past week.
We are talking of public fights that started with teenagers, split along racial lines. They sucked in their parents, who have obviously had a huge hand in shaping their children’s budding violent racial paradigms.
Perhaps what was a little surprising about the clashes, in a country with a storied association with race-based violence, was that these were young South Africans, the supposed hopes a post-racial Rainbow Nation.
Apart from the ages of the children, it was really more of what many people have come to expect whenever the veneer of racial harmony that corporate South Africa tries to project without fooling most observers is peeled away.
What is more, that veneer does not dupe the millions of poor South Africans who every day live through the ugly reality of a grossly unequal society.
Earlier this month, on June 5, some members of the KwaZulu-Natal community around Richards Bay Minerals, which is owned by Australian mining giant Rio Tinto, set ablaze heavy machinery at the mine.
This came a month after a senior manager at Richards Bay Minerals, Nico Swart, was shot dead while on his way to work.
The suspicion is that the arson and murder were perpetrated by black South Africans who were displeased, to use an understatement, by their economic lot while living next door to a mine that puts makes millions of dollars every year into the pockets of a few local and overseas whites.
Such stark markers of the discontent and anger simmering in South Africa are seen everywhere, never mind that they are under-reported as part of a mainstream consensus to gloss over systemic socio-economic failures and trumpet the glory of the Rainbow Nation.
It brings to mind a certain musician known as Eddy Grant.
Eddy Grant is the guy who gave the world songs like “Say Hello to Fidel” and “Living on the Frontline”. But his most famous offering, at least in this part of the world, was “Gimme Hope Jo’anna”.
The song is an artistically forceful assault on apartheid, with “Jo’anna” being none other than the great City of Johannesburg.
While the song is primarily about South Africa and apartheid, it really is about power relations across the world.
The song was originally sang in the 1980s, but in a country where as recently as last year the average white male CEO earned as much as 461 black women, the song is still relevant today.
Eddy Grant sings: “Well Jo’anna she runs a country/ She runs in Durban and the Transvaal/
She makes a few of her people happy oh/ She don’t care about the rest at all/ She’s got a system they call apartheid/ It keeps a brother in subjection/ But maybe pressure will make Jo’anna see/
How everybody could live as one.”
That was in the 1980s. What of the South Africa of today?
The South Africa of today is a country in which 90 percent of black households cannot afford – and do not have – health insurance. It is a country where the top 20 percent of the population take home 68 percent of all income. What is more, according to the IMF, inequality in South Africa has worsened, rather than improved, since political independence in 1994.
The apologists for the continuing broken system in South Africa will tell us that it is a work in progress.
Eddy Grant saw this back in the 1980s when he sang: “She’s got supporters in high up places/
Who turn their heads to the city sun/ Jo’anna give them the fancy money/ Oh to tempt anyone who’d come/ She even knows how to swing opinion/ In every magazine and the journals/ For every bad move that this Jo’anna makes/ They got a good explanation.”
Today, South Africa tussles with Nigeria to be recognised as the biggest economy in Africa. It has the continent’s best financed military, perhaps outside of the US-funded forces in North Africa. It is home to what is often touted as the “richest square mile in Africa”, Sandton City.
To that Eddy Grant sang, “I hear she make all the golden money/ To buy new weapons any shape of guns/ While every mother in black Soweto fears/ The killing of another son … She doesn’t care if the fun and games she play/ Is dang’rous to ev’ryone.”
Surely Jo’anna can do better with the rich resources beneath its soils, with the huge and young talent base that it calls its citizenry.
As Eddy Grant said, Jo’anna should be the beacon of hope for people all across Africa, rather than to remain a bastion of minority corporate interests.
There is a palpable anger often simmering beneath the surface, and every now and again it boils over as was seen in Witbank and at Richards Bay Minerals.
It would do every well-meaning person to remember the words of James Baldwin way back in 1963: “If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, the fire next time!”