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Faith crisis in South Africa: ‘People have given up on the state’

OOne night a week, Natasha Msweswe and Zanele Madasi leave their children at home and patrol the streets of Thembokwezi. They return at midnight. This is potentially very dangerous, but they feel they have little choice.

“It can be scary, but we want to protect our community,” said Madasi, 31. “We want to make a difference.”

Thembokwezi is a neighborhood of Khayelitsha, a sprawling, overcrowded township overlooked by Table Mountain that has long been infamous for high levels of gang violence, drug abuse and unemployment. The South African police force is very thin, which is why a network of neighborhood watch organizations plays a key role in fighting crime here. Thembokwezi is more affluent and safer than much of the rest of the township, and those who live here want to keep it that way.

“We’re obviously cooperating with the police…but if we cross our arms as a community, the criminals will run wild,” said Phindile George, the leader of Thembokwezi’s Neighborhood Watch, which has 50 volunteers, including Msweswe and madasi.

Tens of thousands of people are making similar resolutions across South Africa. Some teach, provide reliable electricity, organize vaccination campaigns, repair roads, provide protective equipment to hospitals or distribute water. Many work almost alone, others in NGOs or for wealthy companies that now set aside large sums for philanthropic work.

Natasha Msweswe, 42, Zanele Madasi, and Bonelela Mqalo, 54, members of the neighborhood watch in Khayelitsha. Photo: Jason Burke/The Guardian

What they all have in common is an almost total lack of confidence in the government of South Africa to provide a solution to their problems. “People have given up on the state as their protector… There is a tremendous loss of faith. It’s a tragedy,” said William Gumede, a respected analyst and academic in Johannesburg.

The withdrawal of the state from everyday life in the continent’s most developed country is having widespread repercussions, changing the way people think, behave and interact with each other, especially in times of crisis. The death of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who was almost universally venerated, provided a moment of paradoxical hope and sorrow: it reminded many South Africans of what they have in common after many months when circumstances conspired to drive them apart.

Most South Africans suffered before Covid hit, and discontent with the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which has been in power since the end of the racist, repressive apartheid regime in 1994, has been growing for years. Economic growth slowed even before the nine-year rule of Jacob Zuma, the populist president who was impeached in 2018 over widespread corruption charges.

Despite the good intentions of the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, a former labor activist turned tycoon, there has been little to celebrate since then. The pandemic has dealt the economy a series of crushing blows. Continuing power cuts shut down businesses and factories for weeks, while public health care was fatally undermined by mismanagement and corruption.

The government claims 90,000 South Africans have died from Covid, but reliable excess mortality figures suggest the real death toll is between two and three times higher. Depending on the definition, unemployment can be as high as 46.6%.

Police chase and fire rubber bullets at two suspected looters outside an alcohol depot in Durban
Police chase and fire rubber bullets at two suspected looters outside an alcohol depot in Durban. Photo: Guillem Sartorio/AFP/Getty Images

In July, during the worst public order disturbance in decades, hundreds of shopping centers were looted, warehouses burned and key infrastructure targeted in part of South Africa. Much of the violence appears to have been instigated by renegade factions within the ruling party, enraged by Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court charges. This also shook confidence in the state, and a few people turned to vigilante violence.

Neighborhood watch in Thembokwezi wants to step up official efforts, but a community has gathered in a rough part of Khayelitsha to confront local authorities. When a strict lockdown at the start of the pandemic in 2020 led to widespread illegal evictions, hundreds of homeless people occupied a stretch of wasteland and built houses of tin and wood.

“For years the politicians said they would use this land for houses for us. They didn’t deliver on their promises… So we decided to take it over and do it ourselves,” said Mabhelandile Twani, 40, a community leader.

Mabhelandile Twani in the Lockdown Village informal settlement in Khayelitsha.
Mabhelandile Twani in the Lockdown Village informal settlement in Khayelitsha. Photo: Jason Burke/The Guardian

Despite attempts to evict them again, this neighborhood has flourished. Now more than 15,000 people live in rows of huts on the sandy soil. Electricity is diverted from better-supplied streets in the area. Twani calls it “popular power”. The neighborhood is known as Lockdown Village.

There are many more such settlements that stem from the misery inflicted by Covid in a country unable to afford the expensive aid provided to individuals and businesses in Europe, the UK or the US. In Khayelitsha there are now settlements called Sanitiser, Quarantine and Social Distance.

“Now it is so difficult. We don’t get any help from the government. We’re trying to help ourselves,” said Nondwebi Kasba, 73, who helps run a community vegetable garden set up by neighbors at Illitha Park in Khayelithsa to help the poorest among them.

Seven hundred miles to the east, in Graaff-Reinet, a small and conservative town in the Karoo Desert, there is also a new battle for the basic amenities the state once provided. In the townships on the outskirts of Graaff-Reinet, drug dealers steal water tanks from schools and trade their contents alongside cannabis and methamphetamine. No one bothers to tell the police, expecting they won’t come.

Jobs are rare. So are the means by which young people can acquire the skills to escape. Khanya Mbaile, a 31-year-old office manager, hopes to open a coffee shop and internet cafe in the township where she lives that will provide a safe meeting place for young people. She has already purchased six computers from an NGO. “We are all exhausted, but there is a glimmer of hope,” Mbaile said.

Louise Masimela, 58, who runs a community school for young children in a township just south of Graaff-Reinet, is one of South Africa’s perennial problem solvers. The former journalist has no permanent housing for her students, scarce water and no money to pay teachers. “It’s tough, very tough… but we want to educate our kids that they can go out into the world, not get stuck here,” Masimela said.

So she found solutions: a church offers space during the week and seven volunteers teach. Water comes from The Gift of the Givers, now one of South Africa’s largest NGOs. It is funded entirely by private donors, mainly businesses, and distributes 400 million rand (£20 million) in aid annually.

In the Eastern Cape province, the NGO works in hospitals and supplies much-needed PPE, medicines, oxygen delivery equipment, food for patients and even goody bags to motivate health professionals. Elsewhere in the province, one of South Africa’s poorest, it has supplied seeds, feed and food to orphanages, transported water to poor communities and even dug boreholes.

“There are a lot of good people in government who want to do the right thing… and I see things changing. It’s not a huge change, but people want to fix things,” said Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the founder of the NGO. “We have to fill the gap, but by filling the gap we put pressure. People ask why we do what the government should do.”

The recent local elections are seen by many analysts as a cause for optimism. The ANC was penalized by voters and lost 8.3% of its vote share and just under 1,000 council seats. The party had to share power in many small towns – including Graaff-Reinet – and its hold on cities like Johannesburg and Pretoria slipped further.

In different cities, local communities merged to create political alternatives that often won support. “A lot of this is hopeful… It shows a desire for a new inclusive project,” Gumede said.

Many see the need for political options that provide an authentic alternative to the ANC, but also escape the toxic legacy of South Africa’s traumatic past. Due to the dominance of the ANC at the national level, the main political struggle takes place within the organization.

Protests against Covid restrictions in Cape Town in October
Protests against Covid restrictions in Cape Town in October. Photo: Rodger Bosch/AFP/Getty Images

Judith February, an analyst, wrote for the Daily Maverick website in December: “From the July uprising to the mess that is our intelligence agencies, [from] an increasing… anti-vaxx stance on a coal commitment, tensions within the party are… at odds with the interests of the country. Ramaphosa’s grip on power seems hesitant and weak.”

Farmers say the relief from rain that broke a five-year drought has helped the agricultural sector offset losses elsewhere, but the main tourism sector has been hit hard by the pandemic, with huge losses in income and jobs.

“It’s been a disaster, a total disaster,” says 59-year-old Kobus Potgeiter, who runs a farm guest house outside the town of Oudsthoorn, on the spectacular R62 road that was once crowded with tourists. After 16 years, he is thinking about closing permanently, or at least scaling down.

Kobus Potgeiter
Kobus Potgeiter, 59, a boarding house owner and farmer. Photo: Jason Burke/The Guardian

In Franschhoek, a hub of fine dining and winemaking set amid mountains and vineyards an hour’s drive from Cape Town, the absence of foreign visitors has forced top restaurants to close, hotels closed for months and the loss of thousands of jobs. As elsewhere, the national vaccination campaign was lacking in resources, leaving locals with minimal opportunities to get vaccinated and almost no information that could help overcome the widespread hesitation.

To convince potential visitors that the city was safe, the Franschhoek tourist board tried to organize its own vaccination campaign, supported by crowdfunding, major companies and the local government. In November, 85% of employees had been stabbed in the hospitality industry. But just as the tourists started to return, the identification of the Omicron variant in South Africa brought new travel bans. “It was devastating,” said Ruth McCourt, marketing manager.

Farm workers tend to plant newly planted vines on the Haute Cabrière wine estate
Farm workers care for newly planted vines at the Haute Cabrière wine estate. Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images

In a country with some of the highest levels of inequality in the world, some have weathered South Africa’s economic and political storm better than others. Even locals admit that Franshhoek is a “bit of a bubble”. Khayelitsha is not, and its half-million residents have little protection from the troops plaguing the country.

“It’s going to be a bitter, black Christmas,” Twani, the community leader in Lockdown Village, said in mid-December. “My fear is that we live in a time bomb here in South Africa. People are angry… In the end, anything can happen.”