A Perspective From A South African Human Rights Activist And Economist–Masana Ndinga-Kanga

South Africa is living through the worst of violence since the 1990s, sparked by the supporters of the 79-year-old former president, Jacob Zuma, over his 15-month prison sentence for being in contempt of court by refusing to testify before the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, or the Zondo Commission, investigating his alleged involvement in corruption–which he denies. The first South African president since the end of white-minority rule in 1994 to be imprisoned, Zuma is being investigated for his alleged involvement with high-level state corruption and bribery in collaboration with the India-based Gupta family who have “siphoned billions of rand from state and parastatal institutions.” The Guptagate controversy has led to South Africa issuing extradition papers to both India and the UAE–with no extradition treaty with the UAE.

Protestors demanding the release of Zuma looted and destroyed shops, businesses, and some 200 shopping malls—including those in the largest township of Soweto–Mandela’s home–and in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces. Nearly 100 are dead and 800 arrested. President Cyril Ramaphosa’s failed leadership continues to mishandle the country’s speedy demise into total mayhem as the unequal socioeconomic inequalities as hunger rises and service delivery deteriorate in already indignant communities affected by the looting.

Nearly 30 years after apartheid’s end, the demise of the continent’s most industrialized economy has resulted in persistent dire poverty levels for millions. South Africa’s unemployment rate reached 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021 according to statistics agency reports–inflicting some 7.242 million people of the little over 60 million population. Youth unemployment rates reached 46.3%.

Community civil society groups and human rights activists are working around the clock to calm the situation in an already exacerbated, pandemic economy. The current situation in South Africa is intimately linked to what Masana Ndinga-Kanga, Programs Director at Sonke Gender Justice, has been working for at the South Africa-based non-profit–strengthening capacity of governments, civil society and citizens in advancing gender justice and womxn’s rights, contributing to social justice and the elimination of poverty.

“You can only continue for so long with high levels of inequality before you start seeing continuous endemic levels of violence. The truth is that local level protests have gone under-reported and dismissed by the state. Termed ‘the smoke that calls,’ communities have accepted that the government only responds to grievances when there is destruction–Zuma’s arrest was fertile grounds for an already aggrieved population to be mobilized. And now it’s escalated into a country truly at war with itself after 27 years,” says the 32-year-old Ndinga-Kanga who was born in the transition period of South Africa, positioning the country as a perfect inequality case study for the rest of the world.

A Senior Atlantic Fellow in Social and Economic, recently included in Apolitical’s Top 100 Most Influential People in Gender Policy 2021 in Feminist Movements and Leadership, Ndinga-Kanga has a multi-disciplinary background in African Studies, politics, economics, international development and law. She holds a MSc in Political Economy of Late Development from the London School of Economics, a BA in African Studies and a B. Com. in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from the University of Cape Town.

“Activists have long critiqued the organization of the global political economy and how it exacerbates inequality at global and national levels. In South Africa, the combination of corruption, illicit financial flows, and the lack of autonomy over our macroeconomic policies have compromised the resilience of our democracy,” says Ndinga-Kanga. “In 1994, South Africa signed onto international treaties to advance and champion human rights. The democratic dispensation was also one of the first to recognize and protect socioeconomic and sexual minority rights in the region, guided by the Bill of Rights in the Constitution. This was a bold step, but also included the caveat that the state’s implementation of these rights would be subject to available public resources. At the same time, South Africa ironically undertook a macroeconomic policy that closely mimicked the Structural Adjustment Programs, even after evidence that this heightened poverty in the region. Trade liberalization, fiscal austerity and increased privatization contributed to the limited capacity that a newly elected democratic government would have to implement its very commitments to human rights, dignity and equality.”

Viewing the trajectory of South Africa’s political economy at a national level, Ndinga-Kanga says has made it nearly impossible for the state to implement even the minimum levels of human rights–as access to water and health services–which have disproportionately affected women in South Africa, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic and recent unrest. The failing equitable access stretches the inequality beyond, she explains, people wanting water or food, but wanting a “dignified and just” access. Providing “pit latrines on the periphery of the community where children and women are abducted” she says is not delivering on human rights. Combined with contemporary corruption, “nuanced by the continuation of Apartheid-era corruption, illicit financial flows and the involvement of the Gupta family”–South Africa is in real crisis.

“I mean it’s not even a scandal anymore the way it’s been so normalized. The Guptas negotiated preferential contracts with the state, used their economic influence to shape even the election of certain cabinet members and then were able to leave the country,”

A-political in her support for parties, Ndinga-Kanga says the real crisis is how the Gupta case opened “this can of worms” revealing the extent of corruption levels. The crisis is apparent in the legitimacy and a breakdown of the social contract which enables the detaining of a sitting president known for high-level corruption, and the violent response mobilized by his family. “It’s heartbreaking,” Ndinga-Kanga says through tears, describing the ominous levels of country-wide starvations of individuals and partners–frustrated by the “detached way” the politicians and analysts speak of such dire living conditions. Noting how even the Minister of Health was caught allegedly giving out preferential treatment for a “communications contract where his son received a car” she questions the validity of democracy and checks and balances. The hunger levels and the chaos could’ve been thwarted if funds were appropriated legally and fairly.

“That’s the sickening feeling of anxiety in my tummy–if we can’t even trust the checks and balances within our democratically elected black African government committed to the Freedom Charter, then who can we trust right now? If the political economy is not working for the masses, then there is smoke and mirrors as politicians flip flop between their own looting and inability to effectively engage in the global economy to meet the needs of their populations. Democracy then becomes only about national elections, and not about meaningful collective decision-making, where the former almost appeases the sense of control that people have,” says Ndinga-Kanga.

Drawing parallels between Zuma and previous U.S. president as “two megalomaniacs” voted into power for being “charismatic and able to speak the language of disenfranchisement,” Ndinga-Kanga says they used that very power to strike the power from the people, “flaming inequality and desperation to thrive.” And when their power is challenged, they “mobilize the disenfranchised masses to fight their wars–and womxn and children, especially those of color, are detrimentally affected in the aftermath.”

Amidst the ongoing violence, feminists across South Africa have mobilized a response to the high levels of violence, ensuring that people have access to food and calling for the military to play a peacekeeping role while exercising restraint. While door-to-door searches are underway to recover looted goods, with no warrants, Ndinga-Kanga fears it can quickly escalate into the “infringement on basic rights.” With community action teams mobilizing and reporting the true levels of hunger left under-reported, one thing has become “incredibly clear”–the already vulnerable communities and partners “particularly women, children and foreign migrants are being targeted with unprecedented levels of violence.” 

“When you’re already in a country with some of the highest levels of gender-based violence and femicide in the world, these crises infringe on the women’s rights to peace, as per the Maputo Protocol. We have to keep working. That’s all we’ve been doing to ensure that the state is upholding its responsibilities. This crisis is unlike any other, and its rapid spread across two provinces, challenges access to safe houses, and our ability to move between spaces to respond to the great need–particularly amidst COVID-19 and the 9pm curfew,” Ndinga-Kanga rushes off to a meeting with fellow feminists coordinating responses to the crisis and urging the president to use military barracks to enter communities to provide food and safety.

For a list of ways to support ongoing efforts and emergency relief in South Africa, click here.

First published on: Forbes