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The Fire Next Door

South African Police Services (SAPS) members arrest looters at the Lotsoho Mall in Katlehong township, east of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021. Phill Magakoe / AFP

So…How have you been? Since we last spoke, my country exploded.

If you’re not up on South African news, the current government has finally managed to get a charge to stick to its predecessor – former president Jacob Zuma. This took years and several commissions of inquiry into the breathtaking corruption of his administration. Zuma refused to attend, and that’s how they finally got him to jail – on a contempt of court charge.

Since then we’ve seen a rapidly spiraling popular revolt, ostensibly driven by Zuma loyalists, but exposing much deeper problems. In American terms, it can be described as having started off akin to the January 6 insurrection and now segueing into something that looks more like the LA riots of the early 90s. Zumaism in some ways predicted Trumpism. His influence has the same dynamic of desperate poor people latching on to the swag of a rich swindler ‘telling it like it is.’ Like on January 6th, that means throwing their bodies into the gears of the state in his service, even as he clearly despises them.

But it also fits into a centuries-long pattern of racialized exclusion, which is where the MAGA parallel ends. Just as in Los Angeles in the early 90s, the looting is clearly fueled by ongoing institutionalized poverty and exclusion, and the targets are not the islands of privilege on the other side of the highway, but the humble shops and malls in one’s own neighborhood. Add a COVID-battered economy and nobody needs to care about Zuma to join in.

My partner’s cousin lives close to Jabulani mall in the sprawling township city of Soweto, south of Johannesburg. The mall was stripped in the protests, and nobody is sure when, or if, it’ll reopen. She says last night was lit – kids were showing off new clothes and her neighbors were bragging about new double door fridges. Meanwhile, people are panic-buying across the country. In Durban, a business owner mistook a friend of ours for a looter and pointed a gun in her face.

As SA Twitter is doxing culprits caught on video (the guy escaping with his looted groceries in a Mercedes, the group stealing coffins) insurance adjusters are already at work and you can practically hear the investment drying up. But then – complaining about blanching investors is being part of the problem. After all, those investors were perfectly happy with the grinding poverty before – it was part of their business model.

It’s going to be tempting for the international press to talk about this only in terms of SA’s problems, as they’re already discussing the emergencies in Haiti and across the world. Of course, local trauma and local villainy put their own spin on each individual crisis. But focusing on these differences only tells half of the story.

The rest is hidden in plain sight in the bland lists of priorities in development reports. That ‘need for gender-inclusive skills transfer and climate mitigation?’ Check. Those ‘calls for proactive ways to take advantage of Africa’s youth dividend’? Check. This is what those look like on the ground. They’re true for South Africa, but they’re true for everywhere else in the Global South too. If you peer carefully through the stodgy writing you’ll see it: everything is on fire.

The gap between development-speak and the actual bucking and weaving development landscape is enough to give one vertigo. That feeling sharpens to nausea when faced with the G20 whining about ‘vaccine diplomacy’ as poor South Africans brave the worst COVID spike yet to burn down their own malls. As COVID strips away the lie of ‘just keep dreaming and working and you’ll make it’ – the corrupt logic of development itself.

The rich world has no idea what’s coming. They talk about these problems as if it’s happening on some other planet. As if the problems of the ‘developing world’ will never make it to the rich enclaves on the other side of the highway. As if they’re not there already.

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