Professor Francois Vrey from Stellenbosch University’s military science department has warned that the government’s inability to provide basic services puts the country at risk of a “flash revolution”.
Vrey was interviewed on Biznews about the lack of basic service provision in South Africa and its potential consequences.
South Africans are entitled to exceptional services in the constitution, among the best in the world, Vrey said.
However, these services are not delivered in reality, with local government being extremely inefficient and ineffective in providing basic services.
The lack of basic service provision, particularly regarding security and economic opportunity, results in “ungoverned spaces” in South Africa.
These are areas where the government is simply unable to ensure its citizens are free from fear and want.
Private actors inevitably fill this space. This can be positive through high-quality private healthcare, education, and security.
However, it can also have negative effects if these spaces are filled by nefarious actors such as criminal groups or even armed groups.
In South Africa, Vrey said, “ungoverned spaces” can be found mainly in rural areas, with some urban areas, specifically in Gauteng, becoming ungoverned.
Criminal elements tend to fill these gaps in South Africa, with armed groups not prevalent in the country.
The government does not have to worry about external threats, according to Vrey, with internal instability a much higher risk due to the growth in “ungoverned spaces”.
However, the security cluster has proved unable to prevent and mitigate widespread criminality and unrest – as seen in July 2021.
The government is unable to enforce the rule of law in some areas of the country.
With protest action and criminality on the rise, this could result in localised unrest which has the potential to become widespread and uncontrollable.
“The real risk that we face, if we go downhill, is a type of flash revolution,” Vrey said.
Consequences of poor service delivery
Localised unrest is already occurring in some parts of South Africa due to poor service delivery. Municipal IQ noted that the volume of protests in South Africa surged at the beginning of 2023.
This unrest is often targeted at local government and is spontaneous and disorganised. However, it can easily spread if a leader emerges who can organise and coordinate a number of local cases of unrest into a wider movement.
Many experts have warned that South Africa is facing significant social challenges, which will lead to social unrest and riots.
PwC’s 26th Global CEO Survey for 2023 revealed that over two-thirds of Southern African CEOs expect to face disruptions from social unrest in the next 12 months.
Allianz’s Social Risk Index (SRI) has also identified South Africa as “highly vulnerable to social unrest in the next 18 months”.
The Centre for Risk Analysis has also warned that South Africa faces a winter of social unrest as sustained power outages limit economic growth and job creation.
Political analyst JP Landman said poor economic growth, unemployment, and elevated inflation have created fertile ground for social unrest.
He said that given South Africa’s problems and the cleavages in society, it is unlikely that the country will not experience outbursts of riots and looting.
“We will have another Marikana. We will have another July 2021,” said Landman.
Revolution is unlikely
However, despite the likelihood of localised and widespread unrest, a revolution is unlikely to occur in South Africa, according to Vrey.
A revolution requires a high level of organisation and targeted forms of protest, unlike the July 2021 riots, which were spontaneous and consisted of widespread untargeted looting and violence.
“The real risk that we face, if we go downhill, is a type of flash revolution” whereby the government gets shocked into action by widespread unrest.
This would not be a revolution involving the removal of the government but more of a declaration from the population that they have had enough.
If such widespread unrest were to occur, it is vital that the government responds by taking appropriate action to ensure that South Africans live with dignity. If not, it may not be contained the next time unrest occurs.