The South African Series

Through a Prism of Race and Class: A Look at the Plett Riots

Plettenberg Bay is a coastal town in the Western Cape of South Africa. Though there is no commercial activity driving its economy – beyond tourism and retail – it is home to some of the most fabulously wealthy people in the country. Plett is renown for its laidback vibe, its friendly citizens and pizza. The small city of 20,000 also mirrors a grim reality that defines life in South Africa: a stark contrast in the quality of life between the haves and have-nots.

The N2 highway serves as a physical barrier between two different worlds; one where palatial mansions sit empty for the colder months of the year, awaiting occupancy by their swallowing owners and the other where people live in abject squalor. On winter nights, howling winds are a spooky novelty for the former and signal potential homelessness for the other. Makeshift shacks that house entire families are often blown about by gale force winds. Fires lit to warm inhabitants can spell doom, their flames licking and rendering to ash homes clad with cardboard or stuffed with newspaper. Soon after the anniversary of the wildfires that swept through the Garden Route another inferno burned down dozens of homes and left over 60 people – many of them children – homeless.

As Plett generally does after such calamities, the community banded together to support the newly homeless, donating used clothes, canned foods, mattresses and books. Such gestures of goodwill are what make the town such an attractive relocation point for people who have chosen to settle here. There is a rhythm to life in South Africa: seasons of plenty (or sufficiency at least) where there is enough work provide for superfluous items during the holidays; church conference season to follow soon after; and protest season when the wells have run dry. These seasons only apply to the poor and disadvantaged classes, those for whom life and economic certainty is most precarious.

Economic power is still held in the hands of the white minority. Outside of Johannesburg, where a small but strong Black middle is on a path to creating generational wealth, much of the country is still reeling from the effects of apartheid. And though the institution itself may have been abolished 20 odd years ago, its machinations still power the attitude of much of the population. Housing is still segregated; nepotism based on race determines who gets advancement opportunities; old assumptions about entitlement still color perceptions about the impoverished masses.

When President Barack Obama delivered his speech at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in July of this year, I found myself praying that the community in which I now call home had tuned in to hear his sage assessment of the world in which we all now live.

Rioting had rocked not just my small town of Plettenberg Bay, but a peculiar unrest had sprung up all along the Garden Route and in other parts of the country. White locals noted with surprise that these protests were not ‘typical’. There was an abnormal quality to the anger that the protesters were exhibiting, one that could not be appeased with the conventional handouts of bread, mielies and R20 in spare change. In our case, the protests that were sparked by shack fires turned violent when government officials failed to address the issue with urgency and immediacy. Despondent and disgruntled after living in such humiliating conditions since birth, the simmering vexation that the youth had been feeling boiled over and manifested in burned tires on the national highway, destruction of street lamps and the shutting down of schools for 2 days.

Vigilantes held towns along the Garden Route hostage, threatening to burn down the shacks of any employed Black or Coloured person who dared to leave their home for work. Taxis were prohibited from picking up passengers. In the Crags, the only operational clinic was burned down. It was nothing short of economic cannibalism. The CBD was spared any damage. Police officers and local security companies lobbed tear gas and shot rubber bullets at anyone attempted to breach the perimeter they’d set up to protect white-owned property. A pharmacist with whom I am friends described how for two days, the fumes from canisters choked newborns and children with respiratory problems in the townships.

Divisions in the community grew deeper, with those whose benevolence that so many people have been dependent on to scrape by vowing never to give another donation so long as they lived. In the wake of a ‘ceasefire’, those who had looted and burned vowed to reignite their protests if the mayor did not meet with them and promise exactly what they wanted to hear. Talk of civil war and seceding from South Africa with the DA (code for a white-led government) in charge reached a near fever pitch. Even after the week of unrest subsided, people with power retaliated for the ‘inconvenience’ in their own ways: shuttering businesses or retrenching workers unnecessarily. The latter response being at the heart of President Obama’s speech; that there is a dignity that only work can provide. There is a soul-calming balm that comes with feeling useful. Human beings were not built for idleness. We all crave an occupation, one that rewards us with self-sufficiency and fills our days with a sense of productivity. Take that away from people and the result in what we saw this winter. The sting of that robbery is worse felt in a so-called democratic country like South Africa, where it appears that the corrupt and dishonest always make their way to the front of the line.

At the end of the day, most people don’t want a lot. They want a solid roof over their heads, they want a future brighter for their kids than the one they experienced, they want to live in harmony with their neighbor…and they don’t want their concerns ignored because they are poor and of color. This can’t be achieved in an economy that only favors the few – and certainly not in one where those few only hand the keys to success to pre-selected winners. We can have broad-based economic freedom and self-sufficiency if those in leadership have integrity and don’t treat their constituents with scorn. This is a goal we can all and should fight for.

As of today and nearly 3 months later, many shacks have yet to be rebuilt and the highway still bears the scars of being subjected to successive infernos. But I hope that in the winter of 2019, the politicians will have fulfilled their promises and we will all have better news to report. I hope that we will have all learned to be better people too.


Photo credits

Featured image: Julie Ann Photography
Main images: Vinthi Neufeld Photography