A reflection of the SONA: Moving beyond surface-level approaches to tackle the complex issue of violence during elections in South Africa

Home|News|A reflection of the SONA: Moving beyond surface-level approaches to tackle the complex issue of violence during elections in South Africa

By Nontobeko Gcabashe

While the election date has already been announced for Wednesday, 29 May 2024, there is still a need to highlight some of the missed opportunities from President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) delivered on Thursday, February 8. In his presentation, he was reminiscing about the importance of the 1994 elections and 30 years of democracy. While this may have been nostalgic and necessary, the President missed a crucial moment to communicate with the nation regarding the forthcoming elections. This year’s electoral arrangements are especially significant, considering South Africa’s history of experiencing incidents of collective violence during election seasons.

The President highlighted that “South Africans deserve to be safe and to feel safe”, a statement that echoes his similar address in February 2023, underlining the urgency to address the issue of safety. However, addressing deep-seated issues of collective violence and ensuring the safety of citizens remains a key concern ahead of the elections. The President had the opportunity to inspire confidence in the electorate by clarifying the strategies aimed at guaranteeing peaceful and transparent elections, thus reinforcing the democratic values that form the foundation of South Africa’s governance.

While we acknowledge government initiatives like Operation Shanela to target crime hotspots as highlighted by the President, perhaps we need a similar initiative to address collective violence prior and during elections. The 2024 Country Risk Atlas report released by Allianz, a German financial services provider warns that social unrest and violent events are likely to intensify in the electoral period. With these early warning signs, we can begin to implement preventive measures before violence escalates to what we saw in the July 2021 unrest.

It is crucial that we avoid being in a position where we must tackle political violence in limited time. Band-aid fixes that offer a temporally relief and fail to address the root causes perpetuating the cycle of collective violence in various communities are tiring. This tendency towards quick fixes, coupled with a ‘wonderland mentality,’ often ignores the harsh realities faced by many South Africans who face violence and insecurity on a daily basis. Like the reality of ‘Tintswalo’ who is growing up in a community marred by collective violence and losing trust in democratic institutions that should ensure her safety.

In his address, President Ramaphosa further talked about enhancing the capacity of law enforcement agencies through training and resources. However, he did not state measures to ensure their actions are accountable and aligned with human rights principles to restore trust and efficacy in the fight against collective violence. The public cares deeply about the actual performance of law enforcement, but often times, such details are left behind in national dialogues such as the SONA.

If our leaders normalise engaging in a habit of ‘skimming the surface’ without getting into detail on our country’s future, then our already troubled nation will face even bigger challenges.

We need to start engaging in dialogues that offer an inclusive approach and a closer look at what is happening on the ground – the escalating level of violence prior and during elections. To do this, we must move beyond surface-level approaches and confront the root causes of collective violence. Moreover, we must recognise the diverse needs of different communities, and tailor our approaches to prioritise local insights and solutions, as what proves effective in one area may not yield the same results elsewhere. This kind of understanding helps us identify the loopholes in our efforts on violence prevention as well as safety and security approaches. In this way, different stakeholders will need to rethink their safety strategies during elections.

We also need to invest in holistic strategies that address the socioeconomic disparities, historical injustices, and systemic disparities contributing to violence. While there is already a number of such initiatives, we need more of these in continuous efforts – even those that particularly target the election period.

In our efforts, we need to ensure that these initiatives surely strengthen community policing, address gaps in legal and judicial systems, promote social cohesion and inclusion, include mental health and social support, but based on international best practices and research data-driven policies. These programmes play a significant role in transforming the landscape of safety in South Africa, however, to implement them, we need to foster effective collaboration between government, civil society, and local stakeholders, and empower communities to take ownership of their safety.

The path to safety is not an easy one, but by digging deeper, confronting the hard truths, and embracing a tailored, comprehensive, and inclusive approach allows us to go beyond surface-level interventions. With the level of collective violence that continues to evolve, the task ahead demands resilience, innovation, and unwavering commitment to justice and equity.

Nontobeko Gcabashe is the Manager of the Kagisano programme lead implemented by Afesis