It has been a stressful week here. The stories I think about are these: the men who died, crushed by falling beer barrels, looting a brewery. The farmers pouring away thousands and thousands of litres of milk because the highways are blocked by burnt out trucks and the supply chains are interrupted. My brother and his wife making lunch for their boys with pops of gunfire from the road mingling with the sound of monkeys in the neighbour’s garden.
We were video calling: I was terrified and near tears, they were shouting at their kids and putting on another sausage. “We’re keeping the doors locked and we’re stocked up. We’ve got the neighbour’s children so they can all play together. It’s actually fine.” I didn’t think it was fine. I had woken up to messages from friends asking if my parents were okay – of course they were, weren’t they? Turns out they were, but also that they weren’t, because the cities were burning.
They don’t live in a war zone, they live in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa.
I spent the morning on the phone, trying to piece together days’ worth of events that had passed me by – the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, the inevitable backlash of protests and then the rioting, destruction, violence and mayhem of a country out of control.
I was also trying to piece together my response, and to understand the attitudes of my family and friends at home. My parents were stoic; they’ve seen this before. They live in a retirement village near a small town and although their shopping centre was looted and set on fire, the community had already begun to plan for feeding the elderly and poor, and within days farmers were distributing milk, eggs and flour to designated points arranged on social media. Neighbourhood watches had set up monitoring systems on the main roads and were organising patrols and clean-up operations. This seemed to be a common thread, acceptance that things were going to calm down eventually and that together communities would start to piece things back together.
I haven’t lived in South Africa for a long time, and I don’t think I see it clearly anymore. I didn’t see that the point of the violence was not to attack people in their homes, or on suburban streets, but to manipulate and misdirect. The jailing of Jacob Zuma is a grand and historical achievement for a Constitutional Court in a country with a failing democracy, extreme inequality, zero accountability for those in government and a failure of the rule of law. It is understandable that the response of some groups would be violence and protest. Change comes about this way.
People are hungry, sick, angry and anxious. The hope of 1994 for change that would bring equity and prosperity to all South Africans has become a rotten core of government made up of people who only see hope for themselves – again.
Things did calm down, and my family is safe. What are their hopes? What are the hopes of all
families? Is a decent life for all people too much to hope for? Governments free of corruption? A beer at the end of the day, a bottle of milk in the fridge and sausages on the table?
It is easy to be hopeful when your belly is full, and your children sleep warm and safe. Easy to
despair for people who aren’t so lucky. It’s harder to know what to do about it. More about soap next week, I promise.