Violence, rape and murder: Ramaphosa struggles to contain a deepening South African crisis

The country is struggling on numerous fronts and a leader lacking support from his own party.

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Figures released by the South African police reveal that the country’s murder rates are now at levels comparable to a civil war. Over the last year, 21,002 people were murdered across the country. This is close to the number of fatalities seen in the wars in Yemen or Syria in 2018.

The statistics for rape and sexual assault are equally shocking, with 137 women raped every day. Thousands of women took to the streets on last week in an attempt to get MPs to take the issue seriously.

So severe is the situation that President Cyril Ramaphosa had to cancel his trip to the UN General Assembly, as he struggles to contain what is now a crisis on many fronts:

  • The army has been deployed to the streets of Cape Town in a last ditch attempt to halt the murderous reign of township gangs, yet the initiative appears to be failing. 
  • Economic growth is unlikely to meet the government’s target of 1.5 per cent, and nowhere near high enough to erode unemployment that leaves a third of young people without jobs.
  • Key state-linked industries, including the monopoly that supplies electricity (Eskom) and the national airline (SAA) have been hollowed out by corruption and inefficiency, leaving the government to pick up billion Rand bills.
  • Education for many black pupils that is as bad as it was under apartheid, and in some cases even worse.

These systemic failures can be traced back to two factors, both of which were introduced to try to counter decades of racism and apartheid.

The first was the ANC’s policy of “deploying” its members – or “cadre” as they are termed – to run key sectors of the economy and the public sector. The result has been catastrophic. Many had few skills and the policy lies at the heart of the systems of patronage, corruption and inefficiency that have so devastated government services, as a recent study pointed out.

The second problem is the result of South Africa’s lauded constitution. The post-apartheid constitution is based on party-list system of proportional representation. It was meant to prevent MPs from claiming that they represented racially specific constitutions. Yet it has left ordinary men and women with no one to turn to, or hold accountable, when critical services, like water, electricity, housing or schooling fail. The fight for political power is not to win support from local communities, but rather to shin up the greasy poll of the ANC. Winning – even at a local government level – provides access to government contracts and the ability to skim off resources. This has led to fierce inner-party battles, and frequently to murder.

In recent weeks frustration and anger among the poor has resulted in attacks on foreigners; almost all of them fellow Africans. So serious have these become that Nigeria has begun evacuating its most vulnerable citizens.

Tackling these multiple problems would prove testing for any government, but President Ramaphosa is hampered by his wafer thin majority inside his own party. He is continually watching his back, fearful that ANC members supportive of former President Jacob Zuma will undermine him.

Unless Ramaphosa can break free from these constraints there is little hope that he can begin to address the multiple and interlocking crises that he faces. The outlook for South Africans could be bleak indeed.

Martin Plaut is a senior fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London and author books including Understanding Eritrea and a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.