“It can’t happen here.”
That’s likely the reaction many Americans might’ve had to events in the Republic of South Africa. For over a week beginning July 9, the country was wracked by mass rioting, looting, and protests, precipitated by the arrest and sentencing of former president Jacob Zuma after he failed to appear in court. Zuma’s administration, which lasted from 2009 until 2018, was under investigation for charges of corruption.
Though he eventually turned himself in to the police, Zuma’s supporters fiercely protested. Some armed themselves, apparently with the thought of freeing Zuma. When it became clear their president wasn’t going to be released, the unrest exploded into full-blown rioting, encouraged by many activists and figures, including Zuma’s daughters. Within a day, the country was engulfed in what can only be described as a total breakdown of law and order.
Events in South Africa have received little attention in the United States, compared to recent unrest in Cuba and Haiti. But social media accounts, many belonging to residents of South Africa, present a harrowing picture. Shopping malls and businesses of all types have been ransacked, their shelves bare and piles of trash left behind in the wake. Everything, bolted down or not, is fair game, with solar panels, ultrasound machines, livestock, and even blood banks susceptible to pillage.
Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens held the line. With authorities either nowhere in sight or incapable of dealing with the pandemonium, citizens resorted to using personally owned firearms to ward off rioters, leading to shootings and gunfights. As in America, gun ownership remains a hot topic in South Africa. But, in this instance, it seems having access to arms is the only thing maintaining some form of order and public safety in certain areas.
The robust private security industry in South Africa has also gotten plenty of work and has proven more reliable than the police—many of whom turned out to be looters themselves—in defending life and property. It was three days after the riots started that President Cyril Ramaphosa finally ordered the deployment of the military to assist in restoring order, noting the unprecedented nature of the turmoil. By then, more than enough damage had been done.
While the rioting was most severe in the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces (home to the country’s largest city, Johannesburg), it risks bringing the entire economy to a standstill, with supply-chain disruptions, plus energy and food shortages induced by the looting and insecurity threatening an even greater calamity. Dozens have been killed, thousands arrested, while property loss and damage amount to more than $1 billion. To cap it off, the rioting comes at a time when South Africa is still trying to get its COVID pandemic under control.
South Africa’s problems are many, but given its history, race always features front-and-center. The country’s history in this arena was never quite reconciled in any fashion, with racial tensions persisting into the 21st century. The white minority has dwindled as a percentage of the population and those who remain have come under increasing fire, mostly from blacks, a story which still would be flying under the radar if not for the reporting of primarily independent journalists. For years, fears of an eventual racial conflict persisted and it’s worth noting the “battlelines” of the apparent war in South Africa today fall roughly along racial lines—whites and Indians defending against mostly black rioters.
It’s an alarming situation for South Africans, sure, but why should Americans care about what’s happening there?
Now a distant memory for some, the United States, along with much of the West, experienced a tremendous mass social unrest unseen for generations in 2020. Ignited by the police murder of George Floyd, race was the central issue underpinning the unrest and has dominated nearly every sphere of American life since. As in South Africa, dozens died, with an estimated $2 billion in property loss incurred. In some places, like the Pacific Northwest, the unrest never ended.
Finally, as in South Africa, the violence had elite endorsement, cheering from the sidelines while also being unable to describe events for what they were. Clearly, the United States, a half-century after the Civil Rights era and in a state of virtual Pax Americana, isn’t immune to social destabilization.
South Africa’s problems aren’t entirely like America’s, of course. Any direct comparison between the countries eventually unravels. But taking note of the similarities isn’t just fringe talk. During the middle of the worst period of last year’s protests, Mark Rosenberg, CEO of Geoquant and a Columbia University adjunct professor, drew those very parallels, assessing the moment as similar to that of late-apartheid South Africa. At the time, Rosenberg thought this was reassuring. “[South Africa] did not descend into civil war and has maintained core political and economic stability.” Although he also noted that the situation in South Africa could hardly be described as sanguine, he argued it provided America evidence the end result might not be so cataclysmic.
Given recent events, Rosenberg’s assessment isn’t holding up very well. Despite its size, strength, and resilience, the United States is also a country in crisis, but not only because of racial issues. On July 13, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) reported that inflation increased 5.4 percent in the past year, the highest since 2003, sparking fears inflation may not be “transitory” after all, portending a serious economic and financial crisis brewing on the horizon. The news comes at a time when millions of Americans remain unemployed and are banking on a recovery from the lockdown-induced recession, hinging on COVID vaccinations and “normalcy” restored by a new occupant in the White House.
Meanwhile, crime has skyrocketed, especially in big cities like Chicago, New York, and San Francisco, but also in previously tranquil locales. In a rare instance of national consensus, Americans across the board agree crime is a grave concern, one both the local governments and the Biden Administration seem at a loss to address, in no small part due to their support for last year’s unrest and ambivalent attitude towards law and order. In the face of such primal challenges, even the blazing culture wars seem of minimal importance.
It adds up to an increasingly unstable future, following a year in which the country was rocked to its core. A small but increasing number of analysts believe the United States is entering or already engaged in a low-intensity conflict, pointing to the diminished, but lingering political discontent, increased crime, economic uncertainty, and rampant illegal immigration, among many problems. It suggests the worst may be yet to come.
Fortunately, this does not mean the United States will go the way of South Africa, at least not anytime soon. “I don’t think it’ll get that bad here for two or three decades,” said Dustin Mascorro, an analyst at the open-source intelligence company Forward Observer. This assumes no major political realignment takes place and noting the differences between the problems in the United States and South Africa. That said, the possibility certainly exists and it’s quite likely we’ll see a slow-burn decline that’ll send the United States the way of Latin America—far from collapse, yet dysfunctional.
South Africa seems far away from the United States in distance and time, but given it, too, was once a developed, industrialized country with a distinctly European character, Americans ought to view the current situation as a warning: nothing is too big, powerful, nor prosperous that it can’t fall. As warehouses burn and food supplies run out, with no hope of relief, it appears South Africa as it exists today might have reached its last line of defense.
It’s not the end for America, but if the end can be seen anywhere on the globe, it’s in South Africa.