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Johannesburg – “After the violence that broke out in July, we proposed that the government take reconciliation measures and ask those who stole and looted businesses to return the stolen goods within a short period of time in order to grant them an amnesty and some responded”, said Mgr. Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Southern Africa in an interview with Fides. More than 300 people died and around 3,000 stores were looted when protests and violence broke out in July following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, which was later exacerbated by anger over poverty and inequality.
The bishop, who also mentioned the subject at the plenary assembly of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Southern Africa says: “The situation has calmed down again, but one wonders how it was possible that thousands of citizens could storm shops, buildings and houses without intervention to stop them”. After days of clashes that led to looting and devastation in several cities, South Africa is in the process of dealing with the deep divisions in the country, particularly following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on July 7 for corruption. Zuma, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison and refused to stand trial for his alleged crimes, still has many supporters in the country who have called for protests.
“Violence is not just a reaction to the imprisonment of the former president”, continues Mgr. Sipuka, “but there are several reasons behind such events: first of all a political polarization between those who continue to support Zuma and those who instead profess themselves on the side of the law and want justice to take its course. All of this has a direct impact on society, as institutional bodies such as the army or the police depend on ministries headed by members of different political groups. Deep divisions in the ruling party have led to splits in the secret service, the police and the army…. A second reason, which weighs heavily, is the poverty of the population, which in some cases has led to starvation. Thousands of these people are easily used by those who want to incite violence. A third element is widespread crime: criminals also use these opportunities to expand their reach and wreak havoc”.
The Catholic Church has published an appeal signed by the SACBC , in which it calls for peace and at the same time reveals the roots of the conflict. Mgr. Sithembele Sipuka explains: “Violence must always be condemned, and if there are differences in the party, politics or society, the only way is to sit down and discuss. One must never exploit the poor for one’s own interests, the welfare of the country. Our message to the poorest is: ‘Don’t let the muse you’. They are the first victims too: In many places you can no longer buy bread at fair prices because the shops are devastated”. The Bishop continued: “We also believe that a fundamental point is collaboration between business, the world of work and government. With the high unemployment rate, we need to move towards an economy that is inclusive and reduces poverty. The quality of education is inadequate and young people cannot become productive after training. We must also look to the more rural areas of the country: the government must work for development there too, so that the people who live there can earn a decent livelihood, and because they are fundamental areas that make a significant contribution to the economy”.
The Bishop concluded with the hope that “the voice of the Council of Churches will be heard, as was the case when discussing how to deal with the pandemic. In some cases our suggestions have been put into practice, such as the subsidies for those who have lost their jobs because of Covid”.