FEW people outside Tshwane (Pretoria) will have heard of Kalafong Hospital in Atteridgeville. But it recently, and surprisingly briefly, hit the headlines when a neo-fascist vigilante outfit calling itself Operation Dudula (force out in Zulu) set up a checkpoint at the hospital’s entrance to scrutinise the documents of staff and patients. People who were not South African were turned away; and special attention was reserved for women, assessed on ‘appearance and skin tone’. On one particularly shocking occasion there were reports of patients deemed to be foreigners assaulted in ICU and being disconnected from medical equipment.

Absolutely no one, except police and designated government officials, has the right to demand documents or arbitrarily restrict access and movement. The fact that vigilantes are checking identities and barring entrance to public facilities is outrageous interference with constitutional and democratic rights. The state appears to be extremely reluctant to deal with Dudula and it is allowed to act with impunity. Oddly enough it was the Economic Freedom Fighters who sorted out Dudula; odd because they have behaved in similar xenophobic fashion over the years. Their current agenda leading up to the general election in two years’ time has obviously required yet another tactical rethink.

What does this say about South Africa today? Plainly, it is increasingly being run by thugs. Kalafong Hospital is just one of many examples: sub-contracting on construction sites is negotiated at the barrel of a gun; passengers are forced out of private cars and buses and required to travel by taxi; workers are attacked while doing repairs to vandalised railway lines and electricity infrastructure. In so far as it is possible to separate politics and criminality in South Africa, it is fair to say that violence is increasingly being used for political ends rather than by the gangs that function for a variety of reasons.

But there is a particularly significant development in the case of the hospital: people are being targeted and persecuted on the basis of appearance and identity. That situation rings loud historic bells: those were the criteria employed by the apartheid police state, the unending demand for the dompas and the use of space to regulate the lives of those deemed other. (Apartheid was a fundamentally spatial or geographic phenomenon.) Now in a constitutional state deemed a robust democracy by commentators, a form of apartheid is back and enforced by criminals.

In spite of the rhetoric of sporting occasions and public holidays, it is hard to believe that South Africa exists as a nation. The daily news paints a picture of a country engaged in a set of civil wars that readily resorts to violence to address any problem. One of the wars is being waged on women and in the last few weeks there have been two well-reported gang rapes; one bizarrely at a funeral parlour in the middle of the night. The first, in an area of abandoned mines where a film was being recorded, developed into a xenophobic campaign against zama zamas (illegal miners) and the nationwide issue of violence against women was largely forgotten.

The evening television news is dominated by two themes: violence; and ANC politics (this includes the corruption and incompetence that is an integral part of its culture). A stream of party meetings and metropolitan authority upheavals signal a common intent: holding power and dividing it up among factions of the liberation movement. There is decreasing connection with the population as a whole.

Most people of all income groups are increasingly fending for themselves in various ways . Utilities and municipal infrastructure are crumbling; the public health system is in dire straits; the police service is incompetent and its stations frequently burgled; and the public education system is underperforming to a disastrous extent judging by measurements of literacy and numeracy.

Watching the television news is to experience a strange detachment. On the one hand there is daily life with dwindling electricity and water and faltering services. On the other hand, there are the rhetoric and machinations of the liberation movement akin to a private fiefdom where wealth is accumulated from the state and fought over; ostensibly through political contestation but increasingly with violence. The fact that this is neither here nor there to the populace at large is a product of vanguardism and cadre deployment; also known simply as Leninism.

The ANC, the supposed party of the people, is seriously disconnected from the reality around it and from the mass of the people; apparently unconcerned save for formulaic statements and behaviour. There is a yawning gap between government and populace occupied by the violent and the unscrupulous. The original revelations about state capture were connected to the Guptas who, while a serious threat, are easily dismissed as international racketeers.

But as the Zondo Commission ably demonstrated, corruption and the behaviours that accompany it are not the preserve of immigrant crooks and foreign habits; it’s deeply rooted in South African culture. Chief Justice Raymond Zondo has recently said that based on the findings of his commission he believes that state plunder could easily happen again. Parliament failed in its oversight role and allowed the crooks to run riot. Zondo went further and suggested that it assisted capture. Since nothing has changed, it could readily happen again. When parliament fails so do the institutions of state that defend the constitution.

Put bluntly, civic morality has virtually disappeared in South Africa and the gap is being filled by those to whom morals are a foreign country. There is an appearance of flaring civil war from time to time, place to place. But perhaps a better description is sheer anarchy and no apparent prospect of any remedial action. So, the thugs of all description are likely to prevail.