Punish crime in all its forms
Descent to lawlessness does not happen overnight. It takes place over a number of years and is usually encouraged by the absence of consequences for those who break the law. In many aspects of our lives, South Africa has well and truly descended into frightening lawlessness.
It has now become the norm that whenever some compatriots feel they have reason to be upset with any tier of government, they resort to burning schools or some other public infrastructure to register their displeasure.
During such displays of anger, whether real or feigned for the cameras, a growing number of our compatriots feel justified to sow mayhem and, in the process, inconvenience everybody else. Even private property, such as cars and houses, are often thought to be fair game.
When university students embarked on their Fees Must Fall campaigns in 2015 and 2016, some of them burnt halls and even libraries. Their protests were about free education, yet some among them undermined this cause by ensuring that whatever money was made available by the government would be diverted towards repairing, renovating or rebuilding the damaged infrastructure.
When trade unions embark on strikes, some of their members find it hard to resist the temptation to trash our streets and unleash violence on those who do not support them.
When service delivery protests take place in townships or villages because some tier of government has yet again failed to live up to the many extravagant promises routinely made by political parties ahead of elections, some protesters set alight anything they come across, especially if it is public property. Private assets also do not escape their ire.
This conduct is most abnormal.
Protests and strikes occur in most democratic countries, but they are not routinely accompanied by the kinds of violence and lawlessness that have become so common in South Africa.
This is a situation about which all South Africans should be deeply concerned. Yet, despite growing denunciations, this trend continues. The reason is simple: those who commit such criminal acts do so with the full knowledge that what they are doing is illegal. But they also know the chances are good that they will get away with it.
They know that there will be no consequences for their actions. If anything, they will probably be feted in their communities as latter-day revolutionaries.
Our biggest enemy, then, is impunity. For as long as people can behave so badly and get away with it, they will continue to do so – and others will feel emboldened to emulate them.
Therefore, to ensure that those who exercise their constitutional right to protest do so within the ambit of the law and respect the rights of their fellow citizens to go about their lives as they wish, our law enforcement agencies must be seen to be enforcing the country’s laws without fear or favour. The consequences for illegal conduct, from the most minor to the most serious, must be enforced.
The culture of impunity will not end as long as political leaders are seen to be doing as they please and getting away with murder, literally and figuratively.
The starting point is to ensure that all political leaders and politically connected individuals who have allegations hanging over them of impropriety, malfeasance or outright criminality, are made to account.
Failure to do so can only encourage others down the rung in politics and the public sector to follow suit.
After all, if politicians and those connected to them can break the law and get away with it, it would be unfair to single out their junior staff for selective prosecution.
South Africa desperately needs a zero-tolerance policy for any act of criminality. It is only when that is done as a matter of course, when there is certainty that any act of criminality will be punished, that we will begin to arrest our descent to lawlessness.
Until then, protests and strikes will continue to be accompanied by violence. More schools and libraries will be burnt and there will be no respect for public or private property.
Until the murderers of my brother, Adonis Motha, of former Orlando Pirates goalkeeper Senzo Meyiwa and of many others are arrested, prosecuted and sent to languish in prison, we will continue to be a lawless society. Until then, criminals will keep running riot and take the lives of our compatriots, comfortable in the knowledge that there are likely to be no consequences for their misdeeds.