Extract from Chapter 6:
Political unrest: causes and cures
Non violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time; the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Since August 1984, South Africa has experienced the most prolonged and widespread black civil unrest in its history. Unlike the riots in Sharpeville and Soweto in 1960 and 1976, the current unrest is not confined to major townships but has spread throughout the country, to small locations and townships as well as big ones. It is an expression of widespread black frustration and anger.
Unrest has taken the form of violence and rioting, stay-aways from work and schools, and boycotts of white shops. …
The economic recession
… The failure of financial policy was and is the main proximate cause of unrest. There are many other causes too, but there is a powerful correlation between unrest and economic decline. Riots and boycotts tend to occur when people are unemployed and are struggling to make ends meet. People are inclined to accept almost any political order as long as there is prosperity, growth and job opportunity. In Hong Kong, the Chinese do not have the vote, but they are too busy improving their standard of living in a booming economy to care much about it. In many Swiss cantons, women received the vote only recently, but it was relatively unimportant to them because they were free and prosperous.
When blacks are asked in surveys what upsets them most about the current system, the factors which rank highest are red tape, queues, bureaucracy, corruption, harassment and intimidation. The frustration caused by over-regulation… is an extremely important contributing factor to the current unrest, as is the hardship and deprivation caused by minimum standards regulations (see Chapter 4).
Another very important aspect of over-regulation is politicisation. As soon as something is regulated, it becomes a political issue. Housing is regulated, so when rents rise, the government is blamed and rioting results, as occurred in Sebokeng. Transport is regulated, so when fares rise, the government is blamed and buses are stoned and burned, as happened in Mdantsane. Labour is regulated, so labour relations are strained. The political cost to the government of granting the Putco Bus Company a monopoly is immense – and the government gets no compensating benefits. Education is regulated, so when students are unhappy with some aspect of their schooling, the government is blamed and rioting ensues.
The following analogy illustrates why over-regulation provokes conflict.
The production of trousers is an entirely non-political issue at the moment. One never reads in the newspaper that the price of trousers has gone up. Politicians have nothing to say about trousers. Trousers provoke absolutely no political conflict and yet they are very important!
We are told that transport, housing and education are important and that, therefore, government has to control them. But surely people would rather have trousers than transport! Let us assume that the government, because of the importance of trousers, establishes a Trouser Control Board, and a Trouser Development Corporation, and there is a Minister of Trouser Affairs. Trouser prices would become a source of political conflict and embarrassment for the government. Every time the price of trousers increased, it would result in boycotts, unrest and unpopularity for the government.
It is especially ironic that every major wave of unrest in this country has resulted from government controls regarding bus fares, rents, transport, education and wage rates, none of which were necessary for the maintenance of apartheid.
The government's declared policy of change… raised black expectations. These expectations have not been met for various reasons which are considered below.
To most blacks, it seems that only violence produces change. During times of peace and prosperity, reform efforts subside. Then there are the Sharpeville riots, the Soweto riots, the Sebokeng riots, and as a direct consequence, it seems, comes reform. …
The failure of reform
We have seen that the political cost to the government of controlling and subsidising the black economy is immense. The government seems to be aware of this and to understand the advantages of deregulation and privatisation. A process of reform was set in motion in the 1970s, with the introduction of 99-year leasehold, the relaxation of restrictions on black trading rights, relaxations on influx control, the scrapping of job reservation, the legalisation of black unions and the decision to privatize all government houses in the black townships. More recently, the Mixed Marriages Act, the Political Interference Act, the Immorality Act (Section 16) and influx control were repealed, the policy of progressively opening central business districts to all races was introduced, and segregation regarding amenities such as cinemas was relaxed.
If government intervention is indeed the main cause of unrest, why have these reforms had so little effect? Why are they regarded by so many blacks as irrelevant? One reason, which was discussed in the previous chapter, is that the repeal of laws preventing blacks and whites from integrating socially does nothing to ameliorate the real frustrations and grievances which result from economic interventions and discretionary law in black areas. But many reforms have involved potentially meaningful and important economic changes, and even these have had little effect. The reason for this is the bureaucracy.
Bureaucratic sabotage is one of the most serious problems facing South Africa. Many politicians would make a considerable contribution to solving problems if their wishes were actually carried out. They accept their portfolios with grand schemes to deregulate, to get rid of bureaucracy and red tape. They make repeated pronouncements to this effect but nothing gets done. …
When 99-year leasehold was announced, it was politically quite popular amongst blacks. That was in 1978. Not until 1985 were leases registered in any significant quantity. Civil servants simply did not implement the change expeditiously. Why not? Perhaps they were opposed to black home ownership, regardless of what the politicians said, so they dragged their heels; or perhaps they were just hopelessly inefficient.
Whatever the reason, when the law was finally implemented, blacks discovered that the leasehold title was a sham. The leases could not be freely traded or mortgaged. The bureaucracy continues to regulate the development, letting and exchange of land between blacks and therefore there are still virtually no estate agencies, no newspaper property columns – and, indeed, no property markets – in the townships.
When Dr Piet Koornhof was Minister of Co-operation and Development in 1980, he asked his officials to draw up three bills to get rid of all 'hurtful and unnecessary discrimination'. The bills were duly drafted and tabled in parliament, where, during the second reading, it was realised that the draft bills would have made the situation worse rather than better. Was this a mistake, or was it done deliberately by civil servants who wished to sabotage reform?
The Soweto riots might not have occurred if the government's decision to scrap compulsory Afrikaans had been speedily implemented. The current unrest might similarly have been averted if other political decisions had proceeded expeditiously. The bureaucracy simply will not – either because it is inefficient or because it is a law unto itself – expedite politically determined reforms.
How are these problems to be overcome?
How can we effectively deregulate and depoliticise society so as to satisfy black expectations?
Firstly, civil servants who disobey orders should be fired, as they would be in the private sector. Secondly, the government should consider putting deregulation and privatisation in the hands of competent and willing private sector agencies which will serve politicians directly, such as the Free Market Foundation, the Law Review Project, and the Privatisation and Local Government Centre.
Power must be devolved from central to local government. Social, racial, ethnic and economic decisions must be returned to the people they concern, and central government must be limited to aspects of administration which are not conflict-provoking.
Authors: Frances Kendall and Leon Louw.This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the authors. The views expressed in the article are the authors' and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.