Terrorists from Mozambique and instability in eSwatini are not the biggest national security threats facing South Africa. What is most threatening to South Africa’s peace and security are the masses of unemployed and disaffected youth.
The widespread unrest and looting that began on Friday 9 July, ostensibly in response to former President Jacob Zuma’s incarceration, has seen shops looted and burnt, dozens of trucks burnt and roads closed, and more than a dozen people killed over the first three days of unrest. On Monday the South African National Defence Force announced it was being called up to assist law enforcement to deal with the unrest as police struggled to contain it.
Whilst the protests may have begun as part of the Free Zuma movement, it is clear they have descended into looting and criminality. Similar scenes emerged in previous waves of xenophobic riots, when criminals looted foreign owned shops and it was difficult to distinguish between genuine xenophobia and broader criminality.
The violent unrest once again shows that South Africa is a tinderbox, with structural inequality and unemployment making people desperate. The economic havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse, with South Africa’s economy losing 2.2 million jobs in the second quarter of 2021. The Level 4 lockdown as part of curbing the third wave of the pandemic is only worsening the situation and the official unemployment rate in South Africa is 32%, but in reality it is closer to 40%.
Many of the looters and opportunistic criminals taking part in the unrest are unemployed young men, and the millions of unemployed youth in general thus represent a massive challenge to economic and civil stability – when people have nothing to lose, chaos easily erupts.
Unemployed and disaffected youth helped drive the insurgency in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, as has been the case in similar conflicts, and should therefore be seen as a national and civil security threat, not just an economic and human security problem. How often do breadwinners with 9 to 5 jobs go out protesting and looting in the streets?
The highest unemployment rate in the United States during the Great Depression was 25% – South Africa’s unofficial unemployment rate is close to 45%. Instead of declaring a State of Emergency, perhaps it is time for the government to declare a State of Economic Emergency and take drastic measures to create work, even if the state has to beg, borrow or print the funds to do it. Other countries are spending hundreds of billions on COVID stimulus packages and that is something South Africa desperately needs to do as well – injecting funds into the economy brings that money back to government through taxes and an increase in GDP anyway.
There is an enormous amount of work that needs to be done and people are desperate to work – the vast majority of citizens want to earn a living and live in peace and harmony. For example, in the month that defenceWeb published recruitment forms for the SANDF, 35 000 people viewed those documents.
In addition to creating jobs, education also needs to be prioritised as it is one of the most effective ways of lifting people out of poverty. This is not just in the interest of economic prosperity, but it is clear it is now, with gunshots and smoke in the streets of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, a matter of national and civil security. Violent unrest will continue to erupt from time to time until structural issues are resolved. A military/security response is not the answer, as conflict hold back efforts to rebuild the economy. For true peace and security, economic security and development must come first.