Zanele Figlan reflects on the recent unrest in South Africa

By Zanele Figlan, Atlantic Fellow for Health Equity in South Africa.

The recent  unrest in our country, South Africa, in the first two weeks of July 2021 is a first in the history of the post-democratic era. It started off as a protest action against the constitutional court ruling whereby our former president, Jacob Zuma, was sentenced to a 15-month jail term after failing to attend an inquiry into corruption. Supporters of the former president took advantage of the vulnerable state of our people by instigating them to express their dissatisfaction by looting, setting alight and destroying businesses, shopping malls, ATM machines, fuel stations, and pharmacies as well as targeting  strategic roads necessary for South Africa’s economic well-being.

We saw these groups mobilising and organising themselves on social media , encouraging people to  destroy properties and sabotage the economy as a means of exerting pressure on the current government. The rule of law was upheld and Cyril Ramaphosa is still serving his presidential term. Sadly, this destruction and economic sabotage resulted in many lives being lost as well as job losses. It has disrupted the country’s COVID vaccination campaign, which was beginning to pick up momentum as the country battles its third wave.  South Africa is known as one of the most unequal countries in the world; unfortunately, the events of the past two weeks have mainly affected hundreds of thousands of people from the poorest of the poor communities. People now have to  travel even longer distances to purchase essentials such as food, and some pay excessive transport costs to reach the shopping centres still functioning.

As we saw these events unfolding on TV screens and social media, in my community of Gugulethu - Capetown, the community mobilised itself. We activated community neighbourhood watches to safeguard our shopping malls, clinics and government buildings etc. A group of over 200 responsible, selfless, unemployed men and women braved the cold and rainy weather to safeguard  facilities that so many in our community depend on for vital services. As deep as this act of kindness is, this group carries out this work voluntarily 24/7 and they are not being remunerated for their services. Their act of selflessness affected me. My fellow members in our social media group decided we had to throw our  weight behind this type of responsible action. We collected over R3,000 in just one week to buy food, then we made hot meals and  beverages for these brave men and women in the evenings. I think that this collective action by everyone involved is a clear display of our strength as people and the spirit of Ubuntu has prevailed. There was no better way to show unity and support to fellow human beings, particularly in the month of Nelson Mandela’s birthday when everyone is encouraged to perform acts of kindness in service of others. For us, as the community, we wish everyone could make everyday a Nelson Mandela Day.

Over and above supporting our brothers and sisters at the malls, as the community we spoke in one voice, issued statements on various media platforms, held prayer services and also used a loud-hailer to condemn the acts of violence that we’ve seen in other areas. We also raised awareness of the detrimental effects on the community  should they allow examples of the thuggery we’ve seen to happen more widely. One good thing about  these actions is that people could add their voices through the different online platforms we used  - without the need to be physically present in the community. To date, not a single mall or government department has been looted or destroyed within our community and province.  We are not saying that we are out of danger yet, but so far I think this shows the power of collective action when used to our collective advantage. Amandla!! (Power to the people)

Zanele Figlan reflects on the recent unrest in South Africa

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