We are an angry nation


South Africa is an angry nation. Destructive, volcanic and mean-spirited anger has become legitimised. Chronic mass societal anger undermines democracy, social cohesion and peace. South Africans at almost every level: individual, community and public – generally feel threatened.

Individuals are angry within personal relations, whether because of unequal power, unreasonableness of partners or because of disappointed expectations. Workplaces are angry places. Bullying managers, inconsiderate colleagues and threats of joblosses keep people continuously tethering on the brink. Everyday racism, tribalism and sexism riles.

In neighbourhoods violent gangsters threaten the safety of law-abiding individuals, families and communities. Many travel to work daily in dilapidated taxis often driven often by violent drivers with little care for the lives of their passengers. Trains are rarely on time, unreliable and unsafe. Motorists drive violently. Traffic officials appears to target only those who follow the rules. Road rage are now routine, violent and increasingly deadly.

Society-wide structural inequalities breeds seething anger. Patriarchy, in which men have more power in personal, social or market relations no matter their merits; or traditional chiefs, headmen or kings needed to be deferred just because of “tradition” whether they are unwise, corrupt or terrifyingly incompetent.

Political leaders are running the country because of their supposed “struggle” seniority. In many cases competent people are excluded from appointments in public, private sector or politics because of their gender, colour or lack of “political connectedness”; while incompetents in charge destroy the well-being, futures and sense of self of all South Africans.

Elected representatives and public officials freely loot public resources leading to the collapse of hospitals, schools and closure of companies; which in turn leads to joblosses, loss of opportunities and broken families. Growing inequality between the rich and the poor are leaving evermore people marginalised, disconnected and angry.

Pent-up anger causes differences in everyday encounters regularly explode into angry. Political discourse is conducted angrily. Populists are exploiting the anger by stoking further divisions, seeking easing scapegoats and proposing simplistic solutions. Adult angry behaviour is becoming normalised; and is being passed on to children. Not surprisingly, there has been rising incidents of child anger turning into deadly violence in schools, playgrounds and homes.

Anger is a human trait that biologically serve as a protection from harm, to force change and to secure or provide a sense of control. The challenge is how to express anger in non-violent ways, turn into something constructive and to encourage positive change. Anger is increasingly expressed in violent protests, destruction of public buildings and mob justice against suspected criminals.

US researcher James Averill in the 1970s showed in research that if people expressed their anger in non-violent ways, others will understand their anger better, and are likely to cooperate with them more easily. The African-American rights leader Martin Luther King said the “it is not enough for people to be angry”, the challenge is to make “anger a transforming force”.

How can anger being turned into constructive action? At the individual greater self-awareness, self-care and sense of purpose is crucial. South Africans of all colours appears to be culturally inclined to bottled things in. Within intimate relationships individuals have to regularly express their personal expectations, worries and their toleration limits.

As individuals we have to learn to become kinder, more caring and more considerate to others, and ourselves. In the everyday struggles for survival self-care must remain paramount. Active citizenship is also key. Within our immediate zones of control, as individuals, whether in families, workplaces and political parties, strive to behave in model ways.

Become the leader, you seek in others. Do get involved in community activities to create safe spaces, for oneself, and others. This could include neighbourhood watches, community clean-ups and solidarity acts when neighbours are in distress. Organise community park runs, festivals and get-togethers. If every community establishes a community police forum, it would greatly help with making local spaces safe. For those what time, volunteer in social justice organisations, causes and charities. Or sponsor them.

Do not vote for political parties based on emotions, family pressure or past performance. As members of political parties, become active, vote for individuals you share values with, push for policies that are in interests of all South Africans and shame corrupt leaders.

Reject populist leaders, simplistic and race-based, ideological-based and scapegoat-based solutions to complex problems. Do not support autocratic, prejudiced and corrupt leaders within religious, cultural or business organisations. Reject authoritarian, harmful and dignity-crushing aspects of culture, traditions and customs.

Citizens must hold government more accountable by protesting – without being violent, against poor public services, mismanagement and corruption. Consumers must also complain, protests and shame poor services from the private sector. Private companies must exhibit democratic corporate citizenship – treat their employees, customers and environment more sustainably. Government must govern honestly, inclusively and in the widest interest of all.

Self-awareness, empathy for others and conflict resolution skills, will have to be taught at schools, in workplaces and in all social institutions.


William Gumede is the Chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation (www.democracyworksfoundation.org); and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).