Poverty, inequality driving violence in South Africa


Conflict in South Africa over the past five years has been driven by poverty, inequality, and the slow pace of reform by government which is fuelling crime, violent strike action and political confrontation, according to a new report.

The 2014 Global Peace Index report by the Institute for Economics and Peace said that since the advent of majority rule in 1994, South Africa has proven to be broadly democratic (ranking 31st out of 167 countries in The EIU’s most recent Democracy Index). At the same time, it faces few external or organised domestic threats to peace: it is not engaged in armed conflict with any of its neighbours, and has no active secessionist movements. But despite this, it is categorically not a peaceful state: a poor score on the ease of access to weapons indicator and a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality among some sections of society, has contributed to very high rates of extreme violence, the report said.

For the year ending March 31, 2013, there were, on average, 45 murders per day, giving a murder rate of around 31 per 100 000 population – four and a half times higher than the global average. Crime is often gratuitous (victims are often shot during a simple robbery, with no apparent motive), while broader violence – against agents of the state, political rivals or “outsiders” – also remains frequent.

According to the report, the cost of violence containment per capita in South Africa amounted to $1 000 or 8.6% of GDP. South Africa was one of the ten countries that suffered the worst deterioration in positive peace between 1996 and 2012, with a 21% deterioration based on the Global Peace Index score. South Africa ranks 122 out of 162 countries and 29 out of 44 sub-Saharan African countries in the Peace Index.
“At the heart of the issue is poverty and persistent inequality,” the report notes. “The country’s Gini coefficient (which measures income inequality) has not changed between 2008 and 2013 – South Africa’s Gini coefficient was estimated at 0.62 (1 being total inequality) in 2008, much worse than Brazil, with 0.55, and Russia, with 0.40. Lack of progress on inequality – as well as high unemployment and poor service delivery – has already sparked periodic protests among shantytown dwellers and other disaffected groups, some of which have turned violent.
“Such discontent also threatens to fuel attacks on outsiders, the report said – the most serious of such incidents took place in 2008, when there was a wave of xenophobic attacks on foreign Africans. Sporadic episodes have occurred in subsequent years – and high unemployment and poor service delivery are among the factors in the violence of strike action, in sectors including mining, since 2012.
“Scepticism about the effectiveness of Jacob Zuma’s government has not yet turned to scepticism about the broader electoral process: political participation rates have remained broadly stable, at around 75 percent in the last three presidential elections. However, it has contributed to a steady loss of support for the African National Congress (ANC), albeit from a very high level, and an increase in both violent confrontations between supporters of rival political organisations, and violent protests against the existing administration. The latter, in particular, is in part a hangover from South Africa’s apartheid past (although the transition from apartheid to multiparty rule was ultimately remarkably peaceful, it was preceded by years of violent protest against the state).
“The 2014 elections saw a victory of the ANC, in spite of a loss of 15 seats in parliament and the rise of the moderates (the Democratic Alliance) and new left-wing groupings, such as the Economic Freedom Fighters party, entering the parliament on the back of over a million votes.”

While South Africa is highly unlikely to face any external threats, it is set to remain a violent society for the foreseeable future, according to the Global Peace Index report. High unemployment and income inequality are not issues that are amenable to rapid resolution – particularly with poor economic performance – and there is little to suggest that service delivery will improve markedly under a new ANC administration, the report notes.
“The country’s strong institutions, well-established democratic traditions and widely respected constitution should limit the risk of serious instability. However, without reductions in unemployment, threats to the state’s overall peacefulness are likely to persist. At worst, a failure to tackle such underlying problems could lead to the emergence of serious inter-ethnic and inter-racial violence between South Africans,” the report said.

Overall, the report said that Sub-Saharan Africa saw the second sharpest deterioration in the regional scores but still fares better than Russia and Eurasia, Middle-East and North Africa, as well as South Asia. In fact, four out of the ten countries with the sharpest negative score changes came from this region, topped by South Sudan and the Central African Republic.