South Africa on the brink

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Two weeks into the truckers’ strike and South Africa stands on the precipice of serious societal breakdown. The Marikana massacre was undoubtedly a tragic event in its own right, although it may prove to have merely been the spark that lit the fuse.

The powder keg waiting to explode is the imminent shortage in liquid fuel supplies. Unless the country pulls itself back from the brink, we are in for a national state of emergency.

It may play out something like this.

As fuel supply lines further constrict, many motorists will understandably choose to fill up their tanks “just in case”. Filling stations will quickly run dry, supermarkets operating at the end of complex just-in-time supply chains will see their inventories deplete, exacerbated by panic buying brought on by sensationalist media coverage. Within days, severe food shortages will result, and we’ll be running a real-time nationwide experiment to test the veracity of the adage that civilisation is, at any one time, only nine meals away from anarchy.

Factories will close their doors as production lines grind to a halt, with companies unable to procure raw material supplies or shift burgeoning product inventories. More and more banks and ATMs will run out of cash; emergency services will find themselves simultaneously inundated with calls for assistance as violence and desperation spreads, yet unable to respond due to their own fuel shortages; hospitals will cancel all but the most critical operations as remote doctors and nurses struggle to reach their place of work; burials will be postponed and corpses will pile up in morgues. The country will come to a complete standstill and many of the characteristics of modern civilised society that we take for granted – trust, human decency, a lawful majority – will evaporate.

If all this sounds rather fantastical and unlikely, recall that it has already happened.

In the United Kingdom (UK), just 12 years ago last month, a protest by road hauliers against high diesel prices led to blockades of refineries and fuel terminals, and culminated in a week-long social experiment that will be remembered by anyone who experienced it. The world’s fourth largest economy (at that time) unravelled within a matter of days.

The challenge facing South Africa today is not identical, though situational differences should not lead us to a position of complacency. The UK dispute specifically targeted transport fuel supplies at source, whereas the current crisis involves the road haulage sector (which is but a critical component of the supply chain) as a whole.

However, throw in some extremely combustible kindling created by entrenched social inequalities and legitimate labour grievances – which have found their most recent violent expression in the extractives sector disputes – and we have all the conditions necessary for collapse.

The extent of our dependency on liquid transportation fuels – overwhelmingly derived from oil, more often than not from unstable parts of the world – becomes vividly apparent only when they no longer flow freely.

Until this moment, we scarcely give a moment’s thought to how pervasively oil seeps through every aspect of our lives.

Note also that absolute physical shortages are not necessary; with the human tendency to hoard in anticipation of a crisis, all that is required is for the notion to take hold that limited fuel supplies are a distinct possibility.

It becomes a case study in self-fulfilling prophecies.

Of course, none of the above is inevitable in the coming weeks. What is likely, however this plays out, is that we will recover from the crisis and return to some semblance of normality without properly facing up to – much less addressing – this pernicious dependence on liquid fuels.

To the extent that we pretend to deal with it, our “answers” will probably be found in synthetic oil substitutes – coal liquefaction and Karoo shale gas – proffered as a pathway to national energy security that insulate us from undemocratic regimes in faraway desert lands. It’s a shell game – a confidence trick designed to keep our eyes away from the real prize. It’s methadone for our collective heroin addiction.