FORTY YEARS AGO a combination of frustration against local government, the enforcement of Afrikaans language policy, trade-union activism and the politicising impact of the black consciousness movement culminated in the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976. In the weeks and months that followed, tens of thousands of South Africans from townships across the country took to the streets in a violent confrontation with the apartheid state. Although the National Party government was eventually able to restore a semblance of order by force of arms, several thousand young South Africans fled the country, largely to join the Pan Africanist Congress, then moving on to the African National Congress (ANC) when the former proved absent to fight apartheid. These events – combined with international activism, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and internal revolt within the governing National Party – would eventually force a historical compromise when Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990 and, in 1994, elected president of South Africa.
This paper examines the economic and social underpinnings of rising political instability in South Africa such as poverty, unemployment and inequality. The paper then reviews the patterns of violence across different categories before concluding with a brief analysis of the extent to which corruption, poor governance and lacklustre leadership exacerbate social turbulence. In this way, it presents the context for a separate paper, South African scenarios 2024, and a subsequent set of policy recommendations Rainbow at risk that set out the prospects and requirements for change.