IT IS only three minutes’ walk from the intersection of Oxford and Riviera roads in Johannesburg’s Killarney neighbourhood, where beggars hold cardboard signs saying “No food, no job, please help”, to the Gupta family’s estate in the adjoining, elite Saxonwold neighbourhood, where menacing security guards and expensive cars are always present at the high walls. Government officials have been frequent visitors to the Saxonwold mansion for highly suspect reasons.
These are the stark, opposing South African realities: the former evoking shame, the latter producing widespread outrage at the Guptas’ capture of the country through their puppets President Jacob Zuma and his cronies. There were beggars and rich people here decades ago during apartheid – the blacks were workers from townships and the whites, residents of Killarney and Saxonwold. Today the country has a black government and president, but the inequalities remain and the poverty has increased, albeit with the racial divide somewhat blurred.
During apartheid, Killarney’s blocks of flats were inhabited largely by Jews, some of them high-profile leaders in business, politics and the arts. The population today is more diverse, as a large Muslim population has moved in, as well as other groups. The Saxonwold mansions are mostly owned by ‘old’ money, people who have been wealthy and rooted in the neighbourhood for many years.
South Africa’s current crisis shows Zuma as a tinpot dictator – a president gone ‘rogue’, says ANC stalwart Barbara Hogan – doing things that serve his interests and the Guptas, and threaten the country’s well-being. Such as last week’s dead-of-night Cabinet reshuffle to include people who will do his bidding, allow him to raid the Treasury and strengthen his patronage network. In response, S&P Global Ratings agency has cut South Africa’s investment rating to junk status, and Moody’s has also put the country on watch for a possible downgrade to junk.
Although this country’s history is riddled with angry citizens’ protests through the apartheid era – protest is almost part of South African culture – people don’t know what to do now as the ‘enemy’ is less clear than it was then. Marches are planned, but they alone won’t bring down Zuma. He could ignore them, and his supporters could easily mobilise counter-protests.
Legal actions in Parliament and the Constitutional Court, or decisions by ANC internal structures are necessary to force him out. There is a high prospect of all of them being pursued, as the national outcry against Zuma grows. But a display of disgust en masse is essential for citizens to express themselves and begin healing the country.
What if the people of Killarney – joined by others from elsewhere – took an initiative, assembled in Riviera road at the traffic lights where the beggars stand, and marched to the Guptas to picket at their gates, televised by the media?
The faces in the anti-Zuma protests shown on television, such as Saturday’s memorial to struggle veteran Ahmed Kathrada, came from all parts of the society, religious and secular. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, leftists, rightists, rich and poor. Human rights and political organisations have joined, for example the Helen Suzman Foundation which said Zuma’s action has “endangered the country’s economic and financial situation” and created “a constitutional crisis.”
The mandate of religion-based organisations like the SA Jewish Board of Deputies is to look after community interests, not get involved in politics. But many Jewish organisations have a long history of political action during apartheid, such as the Union of Jewish Women and the United Sisterhood. Jewish individuals were active in the Black Sash, Operation Hunger and other NGOs. Now would be a good time for a new generation of activists to come forward. The country needs them.
During apartheid most people were afraid of protesting the brutal regime, except for a brave few who made huge sacrifices such as Ronnie Kasrils, Albie Sachs and others. Now there is little official danger, although the possibility exists of violence between Zuma opponents and supporters – the ANC Youth League has already threatened force against Zuma’s critics.
What should expat South Africans in Canada, Australia, the UK and other places be saying to friends and relatives living here? Should they urge them to leave, as this country threatens to become another ‘Zimbabwe’? Some might leave. But for the majority who stay, getting involved is crucial.
Whether the march from Killarney through the beggars’ intersection to the Gupta mansion happens or not, it is a metaphor and a message for what South Africans must do to reclaim their country.