A common narrative that has accompanied the violence seen in South Africa in the week since Jacob Zuma’s jailing is that this is something that has been brewing for the past 27 years since apartheid ended.
(Of course, when this argument is raised it is not in reference to the blatantly criminal looters who showed up at malls in Jeeps and BMW’s to help themselves to huge TV sets and braai stands.)
It is a compelling argument that says the poor black majority are fed up with living like second class citizens in their own motherland, and that they have simply taken advantage of the Zuma jailing to lash out in a violent release of nearly three decades of justifiable frustration.
As attractive as this proposition sounds, it is not the full story.
The full story goes back to April 6, 1652 when Jan van Riebeeck and crew rounded the Cape and decided they would like the land they saw for themselves.
To try and truncate the history of South Africa’s problems to something that started in 1994 when minority oppressors were forced out, up to 2021 when Zuma was jailed, is to ignore 369 years of a lived experience that has forged and sharpened anger – never mind for now how misdirected that anger may be.
And we all know that trying to interpret a society and chart its future while ignoring history is a dangerous existential proposition!
It is just as dangerous as trying to interpret the current occurrences in South Africa along tribal lines, or – more preposterously – as something intrinsically to do with the Jacob Zuma issue.
All those narratives are in fact mere symptoms of what the real problem is.
The real problem is the same in South Africa as it is in other parts of Southern Africa and indeed just about all formerly colonised societies.
It is a problem we have been postponing, setting aside and putting on the backburner even as we watched Angola descend into civil war; the DRC teeter on the verge of balkanisation; Mozambique implode in insurgency; and eSwatini, Lesotho, Madagascar and Zimbabwe broil in hostilities that held their development back.
The real issue is inequality and inequity, which is the result of decades – and in South Africa’s case centuries – of often legalised looting by a small, venal elite.
Serious wars were fought across the region to end this leech-like political and economic system in which very few people lived off the blood, sweat and tears of the majority.
Then came independence, which is where many like to start the narrative of African countries, as if they were immaculately conceived.
Some African leaders, ever sincere and true to the ideals of the struggle, tried to tackle inequality and inequity. And we have all seen how it ended for the likes of Patrice Lumumba and Thomas Sankara. We also saw how Libya was set alight and how Zimbabwe was starved.
Others tried to lay the foundations for radical but sustainable transformation of the economic order. But perhaps subsequent generations of leaders found it too cumbersome to fight that long battle while also contending with the whims of a citizenry that wanted instant gratification.
And others yet found that life was much simpler for them if they merely replaced the white elite with a black elite, which created a veneer of stability and indigenous political and economic control.
For most countries, post-independence has been a combination of all three: genuine attempts at equality and equity, a creeping fatigue and a measure of acceptance of a neo-colonial order in which black puppets do the bidding of European and American political and financial puppet masters.
But this thin overcoat of pretend emancipation and stability cannot last. It is not sustainable.
Which is the DRC, eSwatini, South Africa and Mozambique are burning today. And who knows where the fire will spread to in coming years should we not address inequality and inequity.
We cannot keep postponing this problem. No one is ever going to solve it for us and it will not go away on its own because life does not function on a happy-go-lucky approach to such a serious matter.
Deliberate policies and decisive implementation of those policies is needed to reduce the gap between rich and poor, to lift millions of people from across Southern Africa out of poverty, and to deliver on the basics needed for a decent life.
It will be no walk in the park, but hey, no one said running a country was going to be easy. Strong political will and innovative thinking is required, and know that such ideas will face strong resistance from neco-colonial powers and their lackeys in positions of power here in Africa.
But the alternative is to contend with ever increasing incidences of what we are seeing in places like eSwatini, the DRC, Mozambique and South Africa today.
We have cited this quotation from James Baldwin before, and we shall continue to do so for as long as people do not appreciate the gravity of the inequality and inequity problem confronting Africa and Africans:
“If we do not now dare everything, the fulfilment 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!”