Voters may be finally pushing back against government incompetence and practical anarchy.
A vigilante fires his weapon to disperse looters on July 14, 2021 in Vosloorus, Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo by James Oatway/Getty Images)
The voters of South Africa went to the polls for local elections last week, on November 1. The African National Congress (ANC) suffered its worst electoral outcome ever, winning only 46 percent of the vote. This could signify the start of a major shift in South African politics. The ANC has dominated all levels of government since the end of Apartheid, but voters are getting fed up with the party’s corruption scandals and mishandling of the economy. South Africa’s unemployment rate is currently at 34 percent, the highest in the world.
“Unemployment is driving people to desperate, almost feral behavior,” said R.W. Johnson, a journalist in South Africa and author of multiple books on the country. “When you get a building site, you see people swarming it, sometimes holding AK-47s, demanding jobs or demanding a share of the profits.”
Crime is rampant. In the second quarter of this year, an average of 63 people were murdered every day. Moreover, in July, the country was rocked by rioting and looting, sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.
For the time being, the ANC will stay in control since the opposition is fragmented. The Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, won around 22 percent of the vote. The Economic Freedom Fighters, an extreme left party, won 10 percent.
While political reform is desperately needed, South Africans are not sitting on their hands as their country falls apart. Between 2015 and 2017, I lived in a South African city called Potchefstroom, located two hours south of Johannesburg. I was regularly impressed by the workarounds locals had developed to terrible or non-existent public services.
“There are more and more private alternatives if you can afford them,” Johnson said. Courier services replace the dismal post office. Solar panels and generators provide a critical back up for the power outages. A friend in Potchefstroom told me that since May of this year the city has had power outages nearly every day, typically lasting 4 to 5 hours. “This year was a bit crazy,” she said.
But the workarounds go much further than services you can buy. Citizens start their own volunteer initiatives. A major player in this area is AfriForum, which describes itself as a civil rights organization that focuses on the interests of Afrikaners (also known as Boers, white South Africans of Dutch and German descent.) AfriForum has 155 local branches whose members do things like fill potholes or test the quality of drinking water to ensure its safety. They also sometimes maintain local parks “because the municipalities usually steal themselves blind, and they don’t have the capability to render the service,” said Marnus Kamfer, in-house counsel at AfriForum.
To combat crime, some communities form their own neighborhood watch groups. These can be small and informal, consisting of a few individuals who drive around on patrol. They can also be far more developed. Some of AfriForum’s larger neighborhood watch groups have up to 200 or 300 members. They may have their own bullet proof vests, central control rooms, and even surveillance drones.
“We have a rather large and efficient drone capacity with regards to air support,” Kamfer said. Their drone program is so good, the police sometimes ask for help. “The police will come on various occasions and say, ‘Listen, we have operations. We have intelligence to find criminals. We need your assistance with regards to the drones.’ And then pilots go out. They are fully trained pilots within the ambit of the law, and they assist the police in these operations,” Kamfer said.
Many citizens keep a firearm, even though the process of applying for a license is tough. The entire application is processed on paper, and it can take a year or more for it to be completed. “You really need to be patient, and you need to be ready for a lot of administration. But we see that all the more civilians are doing exactly that,” Kamfer said.
After the rioting in July, Johnson said he is talking to people who have come round to the idea that they need to buy a gun. “Quite a lot of people said police went invisible during looting. If you were going to protect your family, it was up to you,” he said. Durban, where the riots started, has a large Indian community which has been targeted for the violence in the past. “The Indian community had its ear to the ground two weeks before the looting. It used a small private airport in Durban to fly in large amounts of guns and ammunitions,” Johnson said.
In South Africa, professional private security companies are also pervasive. Most middle-class citizens have a panic button connected to a local company that can dispatch an agent to their door within minutes. This is particularly important for those who don’t have a neighborhood watch group.
Gideon Joubert is a private security consultant and gun owner who lives in Cape Town. “The sole reason I have a panic button is that I would like to know that, if I do need to press it, that someone else is also going to come and help me out in the event of my needing that kind of intervention,” he said. “I am in an extremely quiet and very liberal neighborhood. I think I am possibly the only person in the entire area that owns guns so none of my neighbors are going to come help me.”
South Africa’s criminals are well armed, often with weapons they stole or purchased illegally from the police or military. “There is a known problem of armories and military bases being poorly guarded. Guns are sold or aren’t inventoried properly and go missing. I’ve seen evidence of anti-tank weapons and hand grenades being recovered from Cape Flats houses and township communities. These things will be brand new, stolen from a military base,” Joubert said.
Committing your time and your money to workarounds for government services, which you are also taxed to fund, is a hard road. When I lived in South Africa, unemployment was only at 25 percent—and this was before the pandemic. But it was obvious that life would be much worse without the dedicated efforts of many private citizens. People had a sense of duty to keep their country from collapse, but more than that they truly love living in South Africa. I met plenty of people who had opportunities to go abroad but chose to stay, even though it meant struggling against near impossible odds. Hopefully, last week’s election result will start to move the odds a little more in their favor.
Emma Freire is a 2021-22 Robert Novak Journalism fellow and freelance writer who has been published in the Federalist, Human Events, and others. Over the past decade, she has lived with her husband and three children in Brazil, South Africa, and Europe, but she identifies as American.