The Riots Happened, Now What?


From the 9th to the 17th of July, South Africa went through one of its most violent weeks in decades – the worst violence, in fact, since the end of apartheid. More than 330 people died, and many more have been arrested following a wave of protests, riots and looting. The immediate spark for the protests was the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma, but we know there is so much more to it than that.

There are deeper roots to the violence, protests and looting- the biggest cause for these riots is the deep inequity of South Africa’s society. Experts have been saying for years if we do not close the gaps of inequality there will be social unrest. Social scientists worldwide have conducted research around civil wars in various countries, and the conclusion has been that the more youth and young adults that are unemployed, the angrier they will become.

Over 60% of our youth are unemployed, they are not in tertiary education nor in training institutions and so how do they enter the labour market? Many of our youth don’t have a matric or struggled to pass on our current CAPS curriculum, which in itself has caused further gaps for the next generation. South Africa’s Gini coefficient puts us on par with countries like Brazil, making us one of the most unequal countries in the world. More than half of the population is living in chronic poverty, and thus structurally you have a very small number of people who are very wealthy and/or living in middle class.

And let’s be honest, the way our country has been designed means that many of us don’t see the growing disparity amongst our society and the marginalized continue to live on the outskirts of our cities and more affluent communities. And this means we can continue to live in our bubbles and dismiss people who are asking for food and shelter.

There are a few images that I just can’t get out of my head. One them being of a young boy being stopped and opening his bag to show the underwear and clothes that he stole; another is of a grandmother crying because she got arrested and said she came because her neighbours told her to go and get food; another was of two young bodies lying on a field and reporters said that they were between 14 to 16 years old. This broke my heart because these images represent so many people in our country – I think of the many children and teens who are in the exact same position where getting new underwear is a luxury and where a grandmother in her 70s is still working as a domestic worker because she needs to feed her family.

I do not condone violence nor do I condone stealing but knowing that our country has not done enough for the marginalized makes me wonder, do we really expect people to be okay with the status quo? My heart goes out to those who have lost their shops and livelihoods – it isn’t fair and there are deeper consequences for us following these riots. But it is not enough to just come together for a short few months and hand out food parcels and necessities and then go back to the day-to-day, we need something more sustainable, something more long-term.

So what? What can we do? Surely, this is the government’s responsibility, not ours? Our answer is no. It is all of our responsibility to do something, to look at our sphere of influence and make a difference in someone else’s life. Yes, the government has to do a lot more than they already have done, they need to stop paying fat checks and rather enhance social security for all, they need to be held accountable for their actions and curb corruption, but we too need to vote responsibly. The reality is that getting involved and making difference takes sacrifice, and service.

The famous quote from the late John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country country?” applies to us right now. We can’t keep waiting for the government to ‘save us’ from this ordeal.  So what sacrifices can we make? From the people who work for us, be it a team of employees or a domestic worker, how do we make a difference in their lives? We should aim to pay them a living wage, we need to know what it takes to make their lives a little bit easier. Can they leave work a little bit earlier to dodge dangerous times for public transport and get home in time to look after their family? Can you sponsor their child’s uniform, stationery or public transport?

What about partnering with your local NGO who are doing something about the growing inequalities of the country? Pick one that you are passionate about: education, job creation, training, mental health, child protection, family strengthening for example. Once you pick an NGO commit for a period of giving, yes giving once makes a difference, however NGOs depend on constant donations which helps them grow, collaborate and innovate.

We can all make a difference, it might not be on a large scale but we need to start somewhere. Think about who you can partner with? Where you can invest your time and your finances? What kind of society do we want to live in? And what is it going to take from us to get there?

An opinion piece written by Arise Director, Danielle Moosajie

Photo Credit: Jonny Miller “Unequal Scenes”, Time Magazine