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  • Rod MacAlister

The Case for International Extension of Resilience Assistance


Photo: BBC


In July 2021 in South Africa, riots broke out in Durban, across the KwaZulu-Natal province, and greater Johannesburg. They appeared initially to be a spontaneous reaction to the former President, Jacob Zuma, being arrested and sent to jail for contempt of court. In reality, they were part of a carefully inspired and led insurrection against the sitting President, Cyril Ramaphosa, by the Zuma family and its (mainly Zulu) political allies. The riots lasted a week, with fires, looting and killing on a massive scale, leading to 300 deaths and thousands of buildings and businesses gutted and/or destroyed.


The rest of the country watched in shock and fear that the riots would spread across the entire country, which fortunately, they did not. The Government’s response was a portrait of disarray and dysfunction. The country and its entire governmental framework were made to feel for everyone extremely fragile. The recovery process, on the other hand, reflects a quality in which South Africans are overendowed to their detriment: resilience.


South Africans are generally such hardy-stock people, across the racial spectrum, that they can put up with and make do with just about any privation. And so it is today, with nationwide power cuts lasting 2.5-4.5 hours at a stretch and up to four times a day, thanks to its corruption-riddled national electricity utility, Eskom (that situation also owes itself to the Zuma regime). Yet, South Africans are making do – at least, until they won’t.


Many businesses closed for good after the riots, their owners decimated. Many families still grieve. Tensions still simmer beneath the surface amid a sense that the underlying conditions have not been remedied. Many families with the means to do so are deserting South Africa for countries who will receive them. “The most unequal country in the world” (per a 2022 World Bank report) remains so, and is becoming more unequal, not less. There are church initiatives from within South Africa, and insurance which has paid out, and – what else? Nothing is apparent.


Shall we in the U.S. care about whether a country at “the bottom of Africa” – albeit at the top of Africa economically – implodes? Inured as we have been for decades to bad news from Africa, does anyone care anymore? Should anyone? Or since we ascribe Darwinism to everything else, shall we let Darwin predict the evolution of a crumbling state and society and just let it go? Peril to the unfittest?


I will argue that, in this instance and in countless others around the world, the gap not filled between humanitarian and development assistance organizations invites peril for us on two grounds: the moral and the practical. The gap I refer to is where the immediate disaster relief is completed and the relief workers depart the scene, often leaving communities psychologically decimated with deep scars, relationally strained with alienation and bitter memories, and economically defeated, especially for small businesses who may have lost everything and are only going through the motions of getting by.


The moral case turns on our commitment to protecting freedom, human rights, the rule of law, democratic institutions, free markets, and stability. All of these are under threat. The fact that churches across South Africa, in some cases assisted by churches in other countries, were the first to rally to communities to defend neighborhoods and businesses, feed and shelter those who lost homes, and comfort the grieving, illustrates the power in being morally-led.


The practical case turns on an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure – and throw in an ounce or two of assisted healing. “Practical” is shorthand for diplomatic, defense and security, economic and trade, and geopolitical. Diplomatically, the prevailing dogma among the ruling ANC, most of whose leaders were educated in the Soviet Union, is that the U.S. failed South Africa during apartheid and is therefore racist and can’t be trusted. As exemplified by its membership of BRICS, the ANC tilts strongly toward Russia and China. Any destabilization of the country would be quickly seized on by those powers.


South Africa claims neutrality over the Ukraine war, yet it conducted joint naval exercises with Russia and China in April this year. The U.S. Ambassador has accused the Government, no doubt through convincing intelligence, that it supplied weapons to Russia in late 2022. Further, with Al-Shabbab still causing instability in northern Mozambique, the site of some of the world’s largest and newest LNG projects by the U.S. and France, a weak South Africa risks a metastasizing within the southern region.


While China is South Africa’s largest trading partner ($11.9 BB in 2022), the U.S. is a close second at $10.9 BB. If, however, we add in the next four largest trading partners of Germany, Japan, the UK, and the Netherlands, the total is nearly four times the value of China’s. With such volumes of trade with the West, much influence is conveyed.


South Africa prides itself on being the African leader, and boldly steps up in contexts such as the UN climate process and global peacemaking to make an impact. The Biden Administration counts on such leadership in the climate context. All in all, therefore, the U.S., has a stake in improving South Africa’s – and South Africans’ – degree of resilience, which it should not neglect.


I feel a need to call for capable organizations whose business is assisting with long-term adjustments and the promotion of resilience through complete healing, and who have the values, skills, and tools to help build that greater resilience to rise to this challenge. And as goes South Africa, so goes much of the rest of Africa (for good or ill). The successes that have been piloted in the U.S., post-FEMA support as it were, can be reproduced overseas. To be sure, many challenges would await, including some not encountered in the US. But the knowledge of challenge is no reason to shirk a task.


Rod MacAlister is a Senior Advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a career energy executive, entrepreneur, and longtime Africanist.


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