After the shocking riots that engulfed South Africa last month, all of us in this beautiful country have cause for deep reflection, regardless of our race, religion, age or political views. Was this a singular event, why did it happen?
Few would deny that the inequality in our society, poverty and unemployment of so many are among the root causes. If this is true, we have reached a crossroads in our country’s future – our institutions are weakening. It’s time to recognise and address it.
The importance of public institutions
The week of riots in July across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng cost the economy an estimated 50 billion rand and left 300 people dead. While ostensibly sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, the civil unrest turned into a frenzied looting spree.
What it tells us is that the institutions our modern society relies on to protect, guarantee, facilitate and govern our safety, property, wellbeing, jobs, money, rights and beliefs were not ready – overwhelmed, unprepared and slow to react, the institutions we all rely on faltered, and chaos ensued.
Today, almost everything you think of as yours is built on a societal construct, an institution created to regulate and safeguard it. My personal reflection is this: what do we do when public institutions – the official public and private organisations that play such important roles in the operation of a country (banks, churches, state departments) – fail?
If you look back in human history, you may notice that the institution as we know it did not always exist. In the complete absence of institutions, the basic family or community unit stuck together, and if any of its members were harmed in any way the unit retaliated. As bigger communities formed some order was needed and rules were established.
The recent events quickly showed the importance of public institutions. When they failed, communities banded together to protect our communal property, suburbs, townships and malls. These actions and attitudes continue in the aftermath as we get together to clean up the streets of our towns.
However, the root causes of inequality and poverty remain. These need to be addressed – and there are no quick fixes. Most institutions I have the privilege to work with are taking their role seriously.
They are training young people, offering bursaries and internships, and making genuine efforts to make a difference to unemployment through skills development and training.
What can be done?
I fear these efforts are not going to move the needle enough, and definitely not fast enough. This is a problem of thousands, not hundreds.
Institutions matter. Now more than ever. To solve unemployment and poverty, institutions need to do the following:
- Public institutions need to fulfil their mandate. They need to provide the framework within which the country can operate effectively and efficiently. The month of July showed starkly that without working institutions from the state, we will not be able to move forward – this spans from policy-making right down to execution at ground level.
- Private institutions need to ramp their efforts and work with the government to directly address underlying root causes. Their longevity and the success of their business models may depend on their ability to make a bigger difference sooner in employment and poverty relief.
- Both public and private institutions need to work together to create a step-change in employment and skills development. We need to marry policy-making, public execution of these policies and the buying and selling practices of the private sector into a working model that speeds up economic growth, job creation and skills development.
The riots are South Africa’s wake-up call. Our current approaches and efforts are simply not making a big enough dent in the poverty and unemployment the nation has faced for too long. I believe this is an important crossroads for our country.
If we recognise this moment and stand up to the challenge, we can shape a different future for the generations that follow.