We need to ensure that there a consequences for wrong doing in order to arrest our descent to lawlessness, argues Kaizer Nyatsumba.
Descent to lawlessness does not happen overnight. It takes place over a number of years, usually encouraged by the absence of consequences for those who break the law. In many aspects of our lives, South Africa has well and truly descended into frightening lawlessness.
It has now become the norm that, whenever some compatriots feel that they have reason to be upset with any tier of government, they resort to burning schools or some other public infrastructure, in order to register their displeasure. During such anger, whether real or feigned for the watching cameras, increasingly a growing number of our compatriots feel justified to sow mayhem and, in the process, to inconvenience everybody else. Even private property – such as cars and even houses – are often thought to be fair game.
When university students embarked on “Fees Must Fall” protests in 2016 and the year before, some burnt important buildings like halls and even libraries. The protests were about free education, and yet some among them undermined that cause by ensuring that whatever money was made available by the Government would be diverted towards repairing, renovating or rebuilding the damaged infrastructure.
When trade unions embark on strikes, some of their members find it hard to resist the temptation to trash our streets and even to unleash violence on those who do not support them. When service delivery protests take place in townships or villages across the country because some tier of government has yet again failed to live up to the many extravagant promises routinely made by political parties ahead of our elections, some among the protesters set alight anything they come across, especially if it is public property, even though private assets also do not escape.
When the people of Vuwani in Limpopo protested against the creation of a new municipality that would incorporate Malamulele, they prevented children from going to school and some among them even set a number of schools alight.
“Let the schools burn. Let them burn. Watch and see what will happen tonight,” a Vuwani resident told a journalist in May last year.
This conduct is most abnormal. It is not normal for people who respect themselves to behave in that manner. Protests and strikes occur in most democratic countries, but they are not routinely accompanied by the kind of violence and lawlessness that have become so common in South Africa.
This is a situation about which all South Africans should be deeply concerned. Yet, despite growing denunciations, this trend continues. The reason is simple: those who commit such criminal acts do so fully knowing that what they are doing is illegal, but they also know that chances are good that they will get away with it. They know that they will get away with it because they have done it before and got away with it, or they have seen others doing the same before and getting away with it.
They know that there will be no consequences. If anything, they will probably be feted in their communities as latter-day revolutionaries.
That is why these people feel bold to appear on television, with their faces exposed, to threaten to torch schools and other public facilities. That is why they are happy to be captured on TV, before the whole nation, mouthing threats like “let the schools burn – watch and see what will happen tonight”, or to be caught on camera actually doing the deed. They know they will get away with it.
Our biggest enemy, then, is impunity. For as long as people can behave so terribly and get away with, they will continue to do so – and others will feel emboldened to emulate them.
So, in order to ensure that those who exercise their constitutionally-protected right to protest do so within the law and respect the rights of their fellow citizens to go about their lives as they wish, our law-enforcement agencies will have to be seen to be enforcing the country’s laws without fear or favour. There must be seen to be consequences for illegal conduct, from the most minor to the most serious.
The culture of impunity will not end for as long as political leaders are seen to be doing as they please and getting away with murder, both literally and figuratively. The starting point, then, is to ensure that all those political leaders – from the most senior to the most junior – facing allegations of malfeasance are brought to book and made to account. All those politicians and politically-connected individuals against whom allegations of impropriety, malfeasance or outright criminality have been made must be apprehended and given an opportunity to answer to them in a court of law.
Failure to do so can only encourage many others down the rung in politics and the public sector to take a leaf out of the political mandarins’ books. After all, if politicians and those connected to them can break the law and get away with it, there cannot be said to be fairness in singling those junior to them for selective prosecution.
South Africa desperately needs zero-tolerance for any act of criminality. It is only when that is done, as a matter of course, when there is certainty that any act of criminality will be punished, that we will begin to arrest our descent to lawlessness.
Until then, protests and strikes will continue to be accompanied by violence, more schools and libraries will be burnt and there will be no respect for public or private property.
Until the murderers of my brother, Adonis Motha, former Pirates FC goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa and many others who lie buried today without any justice are arrested, prosecuted and sent away for many years, that long will we continue to be a lawless society and future murderers would be emboldened to take lives, comfortable in the knowledge that there are likely to be no consequences for their actions.
Written by Kaizer M. Nyatsumba, a writer and a senior business executive in Johannesburg.