This month, we have been transfixed by the brutal assassination of our fellow CariCom member Haiti’s President Jovenal Moïse, in the wake of widespread gang-related political violence. But over in South Africa, a modern symbol of hopeful decolonization to Haiti’s inaugural attempt in 1804, even more widespread mayhem has broken out. Over 200 malls, thousands of shops and warehouses were burnt and looted adding to the joblessness that already exceeds 40% in the affected areas. 337 persons were killed with economic damage exceeding US$3billion and resulting widespread food shortages. What is going on?
The transition from an apartheid state to a democratic one in South Africa in 1994 was greeted across the world with great satisfaction and hope. As a fellow member of the Commonwealth, sharing a unique common Dutch-British colonial heritage, our fractured Guyanese political elite was uniformly prominent in their support for apartheid’s end. An annual monetary contribution and support for the WI boycott of the all-White South African cricket team, were only two examples.
The intensely racially fractured society and its transition to democracy was hopefully also of interest to our leadership of what it may take to create institutions that would enable a plural society to function peacefully but with justice for all its peoples. While in Guyana our “land of six peoples” might have arrived sequentially and been geographically separated by the colonial government, in South Africa the policy of discrimination, segregation and racism was gradually made the official policy for almost a hundred years. The scars had to have been inscribed much deeper in their national psyche.
As in Guyana, the land was seized from the Indigenous Black Africans who had lived a pastoral life as several tribes, such as the Zulus and Xhosas but were pushed off their land by the Dutch and then the British in several battles. They were then sequestered in barren “Bantustans”. As in Guyana, Indians were also brought in as indentured servants to work in the sugar plantations because the Europeans complained that the Indigenous Africans were not “reliable”. In Guyana, the same excuse was offered in reference to the newly freed Africans who had been enslaved for centuries. Also as in Guyana there was a large number of “Coloureds” who were the offsprings of White men and African women.
During the apartheid regime which officially started in 1948, the Whites expropriated over 70% of the farmlands; the gold and Diamond mines and almost all large industries, banks and manufacturing businesses. After Indentureship three-quarter of the 152,000 Indian Indentured labourers had remained in South Africa where they had increased to some 1.3million but yet just 2.5% of the 55million South African population. Africans were 76.4%, Whites 9.1% and Coloureds 8.9%. These categories were officially defined and maintained during apartheid with Whites at the top of political, economic, cultural and social hierarchies.
By and large, in 1994, South Africa was one of the most unequal societies in the world with the vast majority of Black Africans living in grinding poverty. After their Indentureship, as in Guyana, the Indians had moved on to petty farming and running small shops and other service businesses. During apartheid, however, even though they also were forcibly transferred to their “group areas” they developed their own schools etc and were able to secure employment as the economy industrialized during the 1960s and 1970s.
It was not surprising that in 1994, the Black African majority expected their deprivation would be addressed: that was the explicit promise of President Mandela and the ANC. Unfortunately, the plot was lost along the way and the ANC, exemplified by the state looting of ex-President Zuma, fell prey to corruption. The latter’s jailing might be the occasion for the violence but not the cause. This lies in the various factions of the ANC vying to control the state to continue their looting.
In the meantime, groups like the Indian minority are being made scapegoats for the disposed Black frustration and betrayal.