'Angry nation' on verge of an Arab Spring?

Anger helped bring an end to apartheid but what is it doing to South Africa now?

The recent high profile death of a Mozambican taxi driver tortured by South African police provoked Nelson Mandela's wife, Graca Machel, to sound an alarm. South Africa, she said, was “an angry nation” on the brink.

Taxi driver Mido Macia was quiet, unassuming. He'd lived in South Africa 17 years. He was tied to the back of a police vehicle in a Gauteng township and dragged through the streets. He was later found dead in police custody.

It is part of a disturbing pattern of police brutality targeting black foreigners as the number of economic and political refugees balloons. Mass unemployment (70% of young have no secure employment) is building resentment.

"Immigrants have lowered the wage rate, there's no doubt about that, and whole shifts of workers have been fired in one go and replaced by immigrants who have no union representation,” Patrick Bond, Director of the Centre for Civil Society based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, told me. “Bad leadership has to be co-joined to structural factors that make all of this possible.”

Critics of the government argue the ANC has used the very poor from neighbouring Africa as scape goats to divert attention from its failures in government. The victims are from nations instrumental in the anti-Apartheid struggle, those that took in South African political refugees.

Bond says a remark by a former deputy security minister (made in the wake of a police ambush in 2008) that police should shoot to kill if threatened “gave police a green light".

South Africa’s police commissioner recently told an inquiry investigating the massacre of 34 striking workers at Lonmin's Marikana platinum mine the police were given “political support”. Emerging evidence contradicts police statements that officers fired in self defence. Witnesses say many were mowed down as they ran from police.

In Durban, a probe continues into revelations of a police unit that ran a hit squad alleged to have executed 28 people and planted guns on their bodies to cover up the crime. The unit has been shut down. The Independent Police Investigative Directorate each year receives for investigation more than 700 new cases of suspicious deaths in custody or other police contexts. There has been exponential growth in the number of civil suits filed against police.

Policing is no doubt a complex and dangerous job in South Africa. Over the past five years, more than 100 officers a year have been killed. Organised crime networks target police. Successive heads of the force complain it does not get the respect it deserves.

Many South Africans are taking security into their own hands, driven also by anxiety about home invasions and the memory of the low-key civil war that ended Apartheid in 1994. South African police say crime is decreasing, but private gun remains high.

It's not all bad news. The disenfranchised are using peaceful means to raise their concerns. South Africa has one of the highest rates of public protests in the world. So frequent are protests, commonly over services and utilities such as water - that the media, (still fiercely independent and a major strength in South Africa) rarely reports them. Activists are not coordinated. South Africa's Centre for Civil Society calls these street rallies 'popcorn protests'. They pop up and die back down.

Those who rally have some reason to hope after recent gains on single issues. The successful campaign for cheap publicly provided antiretroviral treatments for the ten per cent of South Africa’s population with HIV/AIDS has lifted life expectancy by 11 years. Striking farm workers in the Western Cape wine region have secured a significant wage increase as have platinum miners at Marikana after the tragedy.

The popcorn protests are getting louder. The volume is being turned up as the ailing health of the nation's eldest statesman Nelson Mandela sharpens the world's focus on South Africa. His wife can feel it.

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