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Sri Lanka uprising – a wake up call for South African leaders

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA)

By Kim Heller

THE people of Sri Lanka have spoken loud and clear.

“Enough is enough,“ said ordinary citizens as thousands took to the streets in the country’s capital, Colombo, in March 2022, to voice their growing despair about the nation’s worsening economic plight, severe fuel and gas shortages, and daily power outages. It is another country, but it sounds a lot like South Africa.

Ordinary Sri Lankans came out in their masses to demand the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksathe, accusing him of mismanaging the economy, misrule, and corruption.

After more than two months of protest, the wails of citizens about their intolerable economic hardship were to become a battle cry. With at least ten dead, more than 200 injured and over 600 arrested, social unrest swelled into rebellion, and protesters stormed the President’s palatial residence on 10 July 2022. Overrun by angry citizens, the besieged president fled and thousands of protesters, mostly poor and desperate, occupied his grandiose presidential home.

Picture: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte – Demonstrators celebrate as they enter Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s office during a protest demanding his resignation after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled. The writer says there is an air of desperation in the country as ordinary South Africans battle for economic survival in the dark and gloominess of the Ramaphosa administration.

The rest is history in the writing.

Social unrest is the universal language of a people’s discontent. It is a tell-tale sign of a government that has fallen out of tune with its people. Too often, social unrest is the very last verse in a citizens’ anthem of unheard despair. In his book, V for Vendetta, Alan Moore writes, “Our masters have not heard the people’s voice for generations, and it is much, much louder than they care to remember.”

Social unrest is rarely the upshot of the war talk of agitators. Rather, it is a desperate howl of a people caught in an economic or political wheel of abuse, horror, or neglect.

Just weeks before the Sri Lanka rebellion, the assistant business editor of The Guardian, Geoff Lyatse, wrote about how many countries are caught in three-pronged crises – the ravage of the Covid-19 pandemic, rising sovereign debts, and exorbitant costs of food and fuel.

Research from the 2022 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) identified that 69 economies – 25 in Africa, 25 in Asia, and 19 in Latin America and the Pacific were “neck-deep” in all three of these economic crises. Economists have warned that these crises could trigger social unrest.

The South African President should take note. There is an air of desperation in the country as ordinary South Africans battle for economic survival in the dark and gloominess of the Ramaphosa administration. Calls for the removal of the president after the Phala Phala exposé are intensifying, and marches are planned to implore Ramaphosa to take accountability and step down. An upsurge in social unrest is likely.

South Africa, a place of strife, since colonial days, has always experienced rolling episodes of social unrest. In apartheid South Africa, these were legitimate expressions of outrage against a racist and oppression regime and the government’s acts of inhumanity against black South Africans.

In the make-believe of the Rainbow Nation, a lullaby of hope quieted discontent and for a while, social unrest was a stanza not sung. But the ANC’s broken promise of a better life has fuelled frustration, disappointment and despair among ordinary South Africans and social unrest has begun to raise its voice, once again, across the nation.

The lyrics of the song Flames of Discontent, by the German musical band, WolfDown, could well have been written for the South African situation: “Injustice lies behind every corner.”

“Unquestioning fools choose to bow their heads. You fan the flames of our discontent. Our burning love for freedom Is turning into fierce contempt. No justice no peace. No more servants of a system.”

Municipal IQ estimates that over the ten years, from 2011 to 2021, there were close to 1,700 service delivery protests. In democratic South Africa, social unrest has fast become anew the official language for ordinary South Africans, as political leaders in their pomposity, have become increasingly fluent in the easy speak of crisply prepared soundbites and have forsaken the dialect of community talk.

The New Dawn has been an extremely desperate time for the majority of South Africans. We should not be Ramaphosa-shocked when citizens act in an extreme manner against their wretched plight. If the real causes of social unrest are not dealt with, decisively and in a sustainable manner, unrest will turn riotous. We cannot expect a peaceful and harmonious society, nor do we deserve it, when structural inequality, injustice, landlessness, joblessness, and poverty ravage the lives of the majority of South Africans.

It is the slow burn of daily desperation, and the daily disregard for and neglect of the poorest and most marginalised that fuel social unrest. To say that social unrest is the work of social media or a group of agitators is both misleading and dangerous.

Truth be told, social unrest in current-day South Africa is a legitimate expression of anger against historical inequality and injustice, which have not been reversed, and the blatant failure of the government to deliver a better life, and better services, to the majority of people.

Black South Africans, still on the margins of society, have been patient for almost 30 years. The new, younger generations of South Africans are less tolerant and the demand for change cannot be suppressed for much longer in the real-time of pressing poverty, lack of prospects, rising prices, hunger, and joblessness.

Telling the truth in the New Dawn is an act of agitation, but we cannot hide behind convenient or comforting lies. It is not going to be long before the youth rise. South Africa’s legendary poet Don Mattera writes: “I hear the sound of a Freedom Song: The child has risen and walks defiantly towards the lion’s lair undaunted, unafraid.”

Times are tough. For ordinary citizens anyway. Less so for Presidents. The President of Sri Lanka was living an elaborate five-star lifestyle; out of touch with the daily realities of the 22 million people of Sri Lanka, who are, in the main, desperately poor. Different country, but not that different to South Africa.

The media across the world showed images of ordinary Sri Lankans enjoying the luxurious facilities at the Presidential palace, especially the large swimming pool. President Ramaphosa must be a worried man.

He must be tossing and turning on that rather bulky money-strung mattress of his, worried about the very real possibility of the expropriation of his prized Ankole bulls without compensation by citizens inflamed with anger at his failure as a leader.

Heller is Political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa.’

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.