Peter BurdinBy Peter Burdin|July 30, 2021|9 Minutes|In AfCFTA


“It was beyond scary and we are totally traumatised."

With these words, a friend of mine in Durban described how close the recent looting and rioting in South Africa came to her home. She described how she’d been at the epicentre of the unrest and how nearby had been looted and buildings torched.

As attempts were made to break into the estate where she lives with her family, she described to me how her neighbours had to “man the gates” and fight off the looters, armed with anything they could find from their daughters’ hockey sticks to rifles. She concluded: “It’s been a week of hell and we need to leave South Africa immediately.”

Hardly words that President Cyril Ramaphosa will be considering for inclusion when he before he launches his next Invest in South Africa brochure later this year – yet this is the face that South Africa presented to the world and would-be investors amid the flames of July.

It’s already been estimated that in addition to more than 300 people killed in the unrest, around $1 billion have been lost in the province of KwaZulu-Natal alone; with 200 shopping malls looted and 40,000 businesses disrupted. Some 150,000 jobs are estimated to have been put at risk in a country where already the unemployment rate is 43% and rising. The South African Property Owners Association estimates the cost of the looting and destruction to be about $3.5 billion.

The moment of truth will come when we get the figures for foreign direct investment and discover how much South Africa’s global reputation has been damaged by what many commentators are now regarding as a deliberately organised uprising against President Ramaphosa as he struggles to fight off a power struggle within his ruling African National Congress.

I want to write about Africa’s new opportunities as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) becomes a reality across the continent, and I want to write about how South Africa as the continent’s most developed and largest economy will be a key driver of those new opportunities. Yet here we are again counting the bodies and estimating the human and economic cost of fighting.

Many words have been written about why the looting broke out: frustration at national lockdown during the pandemic, in which more than two million jobs have been lost, anger over the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, an organized insurrection by Zuma’s supporters to win back the ANC leadership and many more theories about years of misrule and corruption. Although, there’s probably some truth in all these factors, the bottom line is how does South Africa start to put itself back together again.

One of the most insightful voices I’ve seen comes from the former ANC Minister Jay Naidoo, a young member of Nelson Mandela’s bright and hopeful cabinet in 1994, who wrote that he was equally “shocked and traumatised by the turmoil”. He observes how the vast majority of South African youth are alienated and disillusioned with a leadership that continues to exclude them: “The lived experience of the vast majority creates a groundswell of discontent and legitimate grievances”, he says, “which the haters, opportunists and demagogues have used to fuel the rise of a spectre of racial and ethnic conflict, toxic nationalism and narrow tribalism”.

He concludes that South Africa is at a crossroads with one path leading down “to a failed state that muddles along the track of self-destruction”.

Naidoo advocates the implementation of three crucial initiatives which need to be implemented urgently if South Africa is to reduce its inequalities and avoid future violent destruction: he wants genuine land reform combined with investment in agriculture so young people can become successful smallholder farmers; a universal basic income that prioritises skills training and social entrepreneurship to tackle a generation of unskilled unemployed youth; an ANC that returns to grassroots leadership representing ordinary people rather than a continued move towards corporate deals between government and business which largely overlook the poor.

In an open letter to President Ramaphosa Naidoo tells his old comrade that this current unrest is “a shocking betrayal of what you and I and millions fought for”.

I saw that fight with my own eyes. As a young reporter I watched a very angry Jay Naidoo and a very brave Cyril Ramaphosa picketing an election meeting by former President De Klerk and his National Party at the City Hall in Johannesburg in 1989.  The police dogs were snarling at them, their uniformed handlers, sjamboks at the ready, warned Naidoo and Ramaphosa to clear the area, or else. I watched as the two liberation fighters stand their ground and demand their right to protest against a system that excluded them.

How things have changed down the years. Ramaphosa became a well-heeled businessman and Naidoo eventually left main-stream politics to become a community-worker and thought-leader. The violent chaos of this year’s looting has re-united them. In his open letter Jay Naidoo urges President Ramaphosa to rediscover the fire in his belly that helped to hasten that fight for justice, which led to South Africa’s victory over apartheid in 1994. He reminds his old comrade: “Mr President we never flinched as we stared down the face of every barrel of a gun. Once again we stand in front of the enemy of South African people – and yet again we can’t afford to flinch”.

Stirring words aimed at the heart of government, for it is how President Ramaphosa responds to this crisis that will determine whether South Africa can restore its international reputation and take its rightful place at the forefront of Africa’s economic transformation.

Some years ago, now, we used to call South Africa “the gateway to Africa”. That seems a very dated concept, these days, as investors operate across the continent from Nigeria in the west and Kenya in the east to all points north and south and in between. That said, Africa and in turn the AfCFTA need a vibrant outward-facing South Africa to help drive the continent’s economic cohesion forward.

Perhaps Jay Naidoo is right and that South Africa and President Ramaphosa needs to rekindle the spirit of struggle. I’m reminded of the old ANC posters, in that historic 1994 election, that captured the mood as Mandela swept to power: “Now is the time” and “A Better Life For All”

If President Ramaphosa is looking for a re-launch to restore South Africa’s reputation then these words arguably more relevant now, than they were 27 years ago.