Be it how it will, do right now.


“The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.”

William Lloyd Garrison wrote that in the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator on New Year’s Day 1831.  He was, of course, talking about the inclination of most Americans at the time to turn a blind eye to the practice of slavery.

Earlier this summer, this country held local elections.  Across South Africa, millions of people turned out to vote in municipal and provincial races.  While there were anywhere from three to five parties on the ballot in most places, on the local level, the election was more or less a referendum on the ANC via their party candidates.  The crux of the debate was whether the ANC has successfully provided the goods and services needed by impoverished communities during its reign, and to what degree corruption played a part in their delivery.

And those goods and services?  Well, on top of basic utilities, the South African government provides public health care, welfare checks to the unemployed and elderly, and funds all sorts of social relief projects like NGOs that treat HIV/AIDs, OVC (Orphan and Vulnerable Children) centers, and mobile clinic and testing centers.  They distribute extra money to under- or unemployed mothers with children, build basic homes for the poor, fund adult circumcision procedures (it’s proven to reduce AIDS and other STI infections), and provide an education to any and all children through the end of secondary school (a high school equivalency).  When you look at all that and realize that a vast number of citizens don’t pay their taxes because they don’t understand the link between the two, it’s kind of amazing the government also manages to fund itself.

What no candidate or party rep has discussed, to my knowledge, is whether communities actually benefit from the glut of social services demanded from and (at least, partially) delivered by the government.  In many ways, South Africa leads America in terms of the government’s role in advocating for the public’s interest.  That said, for whatever reason – and many fingers could point in many directions here – the welfare system in South Africa, instead of empowering individuals by alleviating the burden of debt, has entrenched poverty by instilling a dependency on an economic system built upon complacency.

In post-Apartheid South Africa, that kind of language is anathema.  The citizenry, by the numbers primarily Black or ethnically non-white (Colored, Indian, etc.), are the Golden Gods of the country.  As in America, criticizing the populace is tantamount to heresy and the fastest and most effective form of political suicide.  It’s like class warfare, you just don’t do it.  Period.

As in America, again, one is often inclined to suspect that such bursts of raw honesty might be exactly what the country and its citizens need and that this particular opprobrium may ring uncomfortably clear.  For whatever reason – and everyone from sociologists to artists offer a rationale – many South Africans are simply unmotivated to take action that will improve their living conditions, that will form any kind of social gestalt, especially in the rural and poor areas.

With only a year to go in my service, I feel as if I’ve unraveled most of the mysteries of rural South African life.  Few things confuse me anymore or cause me to pause and ask, “Why is it this way?”  I am adjusted, I am calm, I am at home.  And yet, last Friday, something happened that blew the roof right off my sangfroid.

In an effort to make known their dissatisfaction with the delivery of services in the eastern Nkomazi region, people took to the streets in protest and toyi-toyi’d in the largest town, Naas, my shopping town.  My host brother, a local taxi driver, informed me in advance, so I knew to stay away, but I traveled in after the scheduled end to see the effects.  There had been no advance warning otherwise.

Driving in, it was far worse than I’d ever imagined it could be. Palm trunks barricaded whole portions of the pot-holed road while burned out tires formed floral patterns with their metallic mesh.  Tree stumps the size of sedans dotted the road and trash was strewn everywhere (I found out later they had destroyed all the dumpsters.).  Fires sizzled in corners.  It was like a war zone from a movie.

In the taxi, taking it all in, my first thought: it’s amazing; they organized a massive region-wide strike of thousands of people, mostly by word of mouth, in a matter of hours.  Then, I chuckled: to protest the lack of government services, they destroyed the streets for a few hours, and then left everything to be cleaned up by the municipality whose services they’re protesting.  Only here, in South Africa, could such willful self-deception bear such jejune fruit.

In town, I asked one man what happened.  “They’re protesting foreigners,” came the reply.  Another man told me it was because of a lack of jobs.  I had asked my brother, the night before, to whom the list of demands would be delivered.  He replied that he didn’t know, but someone did.  It seemed, after all, that no one did.

The word toyi-toyi came about during the struggle for freedom in South Africa, when thousands of black South Africans would protest in the streets in such an aggrieved fashion, with so much pent up frustration, they had to do more than just walk – so they danced. They jumped up and down as if the devil himself was inside them and they shouted and sung and fought without ever throwing a stone (not then, anyway). And to toyi-toyi became a thing, became part of the zeitgeist.

What happened last week was not a toyi-toyi; to use that word insults the men and women who bled to bring it into existence.  Last week, the massive sense of entitlement instilled in many South Africans bubbled over and manifested itself in a churlish act of local defiance.  Did it solve any of the legitimate grievances they have or contribute to a meaningful discussion of them?  Did the government even notice?  Probably not, but it felt good, and it brought out the dead.


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