Cry, the Beloved Country: Understanding this Week’s Anarchy in South Africa Posted: 13 Jul 2021 10:53 AM PDT By Clint Archer
“We are under siege.” This was the text I received yesterday from a friend in Hillcrest, KZN, South Africa. He was not exaggerating.
Hillcrest is a beautiful residential suburb about 25 minutes inland from the coastal city, Durban. It is where I served for fourteen years as the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church, until 2019 when I immigrated to the US. We could never have anticipated that our small, peaceful community would be an epicenter of anarchy and violent chaos, as it became yesterday.
The video footage and eyewitness accounts we received from dear friends were simply heartbreaking and disturbing on many levels. Our local mall was looted and stripped bare, stores and restaurants have been vandalized, nearby shopping centers were razed to the ground. Freeways all over KZN province have been blockaded by the rioters’ piles of burning tires. No one can access hospitals, nor can they escape the approaching threat, or make it to the airport. The sky is thick with smoke in many places and the air rings with gunfire.
The small police station that shares a fence with Hillcrest Baptist Church is understaffed and underequipped to deal with the scope of the upheaval, and so civilians have taken to defending their neighborhoods by blockading entranceways into their communities. Gunshots could be heard throughout last night.
Gasoline stations are closed, stores are ransacked so food is unavailable, pharmacies are shut down. Those in need of insulin and other medication are at risk. The rioters are also apparently destroying electricity substations and water reservoirs, so imminent blackout and deprivation are a possibility.
But why? There was a match that was struck, and there was a heap of kindling ready to burn. You need to know about both to understand the situation better.
Last week, the former president, Jacob Zuma, turned himself in to serve a fifteen-month sentence for contempt of court, after repeatedly refusing to appear before the Constitutional Court to provide evidence concerning charges of corruption. Much of the Zulu population erupted in protest, which escalated into rioting, looting, and anarchy. Interestingly, no one is storming the facility where Zuma is being held. They are, however, raiding bottle stores, electronics stores, and shopping malls.
South Africa has been dubbed the Rainbow Nation because the population is a composite of ethnicities. Like Joseph’s technicolored dream coat, it is a nation “of many colors,” each with their own language and culture. South Africa has eleven official languages and is the only country with multiple different national anthems. There are two Caucasian ethnic groups: White English (mostly from British descent), and White Afrikaans (mostly from Dutch and French Huguenot descent). They make up about 8% of the 50 million people in South Africa. The other 92% consist of Indians (Durban is home to the largest Indian population outside of India they speak English), and various African tribal groups, most notably: isiZulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Pedi, Tsonga, and Tswana.
Everyone speaks at least two languages, English and Afrikaans, and often at least one of the indigenous African languages too. The African groups tend to live in areas where their native tongue is prevalent. So, Hillcrest and Durban are in the province of KwaZulu Natal (KZN), which means the population belongs mostly to the Zulu tribe.
Nelson Mandela was of the Xhosa. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa is Venda. And Jacob Zuma is a Zulu. They were all leaders of the same political party, the African National Congress, which has been the ruling party since the fall of Apartheid in 1994.
Zuma resigned as president one year before his second term ended, under pressure from his own party. The man was a disgrace to the country. He was accused of rape during his election campaign, which didn’t hinder his chances of winning in the least. But his blatant, unmasked unlawfulness, embarrassing incompetence (Google “ Zuma reading numbers ” for a cringe-worthy chuckle) polygamy, bribery, and corruption became impossible to explain or to excuse. Investigations ensued and subpoenas were sent… and ignored.
When he was arrested last week, it was the Zulu tribe that protested the indignity of having their hero held to account for his actions. A Zulu friend of mine explained to me that in his culture the highest virtue is power, not morality. That is why a man accused of rape and corruption can be hailed as a good leader—if he is powerful enough to get away with that, he must be powerful enough to lead. Arresting him is a major afront on Zulu cultural values.
Hence the protest. But the kindling is not merely a “Black-on-Black power struggle” issue. It has been stoked by over a year of a severe pandemic lockdown of curfews and restrictions that left the majority of the Zulu people in KZN without work. Unemployment in South Africa is at times as high as 60% in normal circumstances. It’s impossible to know how high unemployment climbed this year, but it has certainly left multitudes hungry, sick, frustrated, desperate, and sitting at home with nothing to do but stew in their misery. Not to mention that AIDS is so rampant that 26% of the working-age people in KZN are HIV positive. The populace has grown hopeless and helpless. But they have their pride and dignity. And Jacob Zuma is a symbol of that. And now he’s in jail.
Ka-Boom goes the kindling.
What makes the mix more explosive is the gun situation. Gun control laws in South Africa are some of the strictest in the world. To own one firearm, a person must go on gun-use courses, prove competency at a shooting range, have an interview with the police, provide multiple references who are also then interviewed by the police, a home inspection by the police, a safe that is secured to two surfaces, and a lengthy written justification for why the firearm is necessary. That last step is often denied arbitrarily. Oh, and you have to pay for the gun first, to apply for a license to own it, but if the license is denied, you don’t get your money back. Needless to say, very few people own guns … legally.
By definition, law-abiding citizens abide by the law, while criminals are those who don’t play by the rules.
So, imagine a world where all the law-abiding people are prey, and the criminals are predators, and only one group is armed . That explains why South Africa’s rates of violent crime, car-jacking, armed robbery, and murder, are of the highest in the world… on a normal day. It also explains why the police are outmanned and outgunned. It is reported that in Phoenix, an Indian community near Hillcrest, the police opened their arsenal to arm the civilian residents so that they could assist the police in defending their property. Indians also reportedly began torching Zulu homes in retaliation for the Indian-owned businesses that were destroyed in the riots. It is a war-zone.
So, what can be done about this? Sometimes in life there is no obvious solution. The army has been deployed—there’s no posse comitatus restriction in South Africa. That may work, or it may result in civil war. We’ll know soon enough.
In the meantime, there is hope for those who know Yaweh. Only Jesus can bring hope and confidence in a time of desperate hopelessness and crippling fear.
I once preached a sermon at Hillcrest Baptist Church on Habakkuk 3, in which I painted the hypothetical, imaginary scenario, that has now materialized into reality. The only hope I have to offer the dear people of Hillcrest and Durban (and as of today Johannesburg and Pretoria, as the blight spreads to other provinces) is the same hope Habakkuk declared all those years ago, when the Chaldeans were about to sweep in and wipe out the food and safety and freedom of his people…
I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.
– Habakkuk 3:16-19
For most of the people in KZN there is no hope. But for the Christians: brothers and sisters you were made for a time such as this! You are like an ibex mountain goat with steady footing on the rockiest and most slippery of all terrain. Keep the faith, preach the word. Your spiritual siblings are praying that as Satan sifts you like wheat, your faith may not fail.
Please be in prayer for South Africa.”