JOHANNESBURG - The recent xenophobic violence in South Africa, like similar outbreaks in the past, was triggered largely by chronic poverty and lack of basic services, such as electricity and clean water. For years, poor South Africans have demanded their government do something to improve their situation now.
South Africa’s understanding of change, however, is somewhat muddled by its people's unique shadings of the word “now.”
For starters, there is “just now,” which doesn’t refer to the past, but some indeterminate point in the future — anywhere, really, between a few minutes from now to never.
And then there is “now now,” which means, essentially, “as soon as I can,” or alternatively, “whenever.” And finally, most urgently on the scale, comes “right now.”
For a nation that has experienced great change in just two decades - and which everyone agrees needs much more — that leads to a lot of confusion.
We are changing — ‘just now’
On the “just now” side of the rhetorical scale falls South Africa’s leadership, which likes to remind its people, regularly, that the nation only emerged from the shadow of hundreds of years of colonialism and decades of inequality under apartheid in the not-too-distant year of 1994.
“We’re only 20 years old,” ANC spokeswoman Jessie Duarte told international journalists earlier this week when asked about the underlying challenges — among them, poverty and persistently high unemployment — that have spurred this month’s xenophobic attacks that have killed at least seven foreign nationals and displaced thousands of people.
President Jacob Zuma — who has been accused of spending months dodging opposition questions in parliament over a corruption scandal — appears also to be of the “just now” school of oratory.
“Since 1994,” he wrote in an open letter on the violence, “we have worked tirelessly to rebuild our country and to reverse the legacy of apartheid colonialism.... But like most countries that have emerged from conflict, we have deep-seated challenges.”
Zuma has drawn fire for blaming many of the nation’s current struggles, such as the failing electricity grid, which has not had any meaningful updates since 1994, on the nation’s troubled past. In recent months, the nation’s power utility has been forced to schedule regular blackouts as it struggles to complete long overdue power station improvements.
“The problem is the energy was structured racially to serve a particular race, not the majority,” Zuma said, in 2014.
The ‘now now’ generation
For South Africans born around 1994, this excuse is starting to wear thin.
That has become clearer in recent years as impoverished South Africans have launched violent protests over the lack of basic services, demanding that the president pay back some of the $20 million he is accused of spending on upgrades to his private home – and, most worryingly, lashed out violently at foreign nationals.
Durban resident Sanele Wanda explained the viewpoint of many struggling South Africans to a journalist from the Johannesburg-based Daily Vox newspaper.
“South Africans are angry because they expected that life would be better after the apartheid regime was defeated,” he said. “We want foreigners out of the country because we think that life will be better after they have gone.”
The tie between foreign residents and lack of jobs has been solidly debunked - recent studies have found that foreign residents create jobs and contribute to the tax base.
Angry South Africans say their history has taught them only one way to fight for change.
“When the people realized that the apartheid regime was unfair, they made their opinion known - this was long before they got up in arms and fought for what they wanted,” Wanda said. “In order for the government to realize that we were serious, we had to resort to violence and fight fire with fire.”
So, what to do now?
Young people aren’t the only South Africans who are impatient for change.
At 86, retired lawyer George Bizos has spent much of his adult life in South Africa after escaping his native Greece as a refugee during World War II. He went on to famously defend Nelson Mandela during his 1964 treason trial. Mandela still spent 27 years waiting in prison — only to emerge to be elected the nation’s first black president.
Bizos, who watched his adopted nation change radically during his lifetime, says he’s impatient for more.
“We, as a country, have been waiting for strong leadership to come to the fore and give us guidance in these difficult times,” he said in a recent lecture at the University of South Africa in Pretoria. “We are waiting for our leaders, in all levels of government, to tell us what plans are in place to effectively combat poverty and shortages in health care, housing, education - and then to implement these plans."
"We are waiting for our leaders to say that they will not stand for corruption and mismanagement, and that they will not tolerate irresponsible government actions any longer. We are waiting for our leaders to give us these reassurances, and then to make good on them; but, we are still waiting.”
That’s a common refrain in South Africa - from the tumble down townships to the top flight suburbs, South Africans want change, and they want it now.
But when is “now”? On this, the Rainbow Nation can’t seem to agree.