(YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon) – To capture the bleak mood in South Africa, which is reeling from a new wave of violence that compounds long-standing political and social tensions, Father Peter John Pearson, head of the Parliamentary Liaison Office of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, needs just five words.

“These are difficult days indeed,” Pearson told Crux.

At least 72 people so far have died, some of whom were trampled to death after violence broke out in two South Africa provinces, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.

Zuma was sentenced to a 15-month jail term last week for defying a court order to give evidence before a jury investigating corruption charges during his nine-year tenure as the country’s president from 2009 to 2018.

His incarceration was the immediate trigger of the ongoing violence and looting, but Pearson says the underlying reasons have to do with economic inequalities caused by “three centuries of racism and sanctioned injustices.”

“The violence is totally unparalleled in our recent history,” he said.

“There are many who are of the opinion that this might have begun as a protest against former President Zuma’s incarceration, but it is, in fact, an outburst of the pent-up anger at exclusion from the benefits of the economy, the deepening chasm between those who have and those who don’t, and all the toxic mixtures of an unequal society,” he told Crux in an exclusive interview.

Official statistics speak volumes about how unequal South Africa has been for centuries.

They point to an unemployment rate of 32.6 percent among the work force in general, which rises to 46.3 percent among young people. Income gaps are widening, with CEOs and top lawyers earning as high as $1.4 million a year, while the minimum wage remains a mere $1.40 an hour. The same goes to the widening gap between rich and poor, with South Africa accounting for the largest number of millionaires and billionaires of any nation in Sub Saharan Africa while nearly half its 55 million people are considered chronically poor, according to the Mauritius-based AfrAsia Bank.

Pearson said all these reasons led South Africa to be seen as “a ticking bomb, and it took one thing – it could have been anyone of a dozen triggers – for the bomb to explode.”

“The heart-breaking sadness is that these wanton acts of violence have now rendered thousands more people unemployed thus increasing the burden of poverty and unemployment.”

The cleric said the violence was a test for South Africa’s “democracy and for constitutionality.”

In essence, many Zuma supporters are calling for an expedient political solution to quell the violence, which might involve giving the former resident some sort of public space to calm things down. Pearson, however, sees risks in that approach.

“This would probably be unwise, partly because it’s not at all certain that the numbers involved in the violence represents support for the former president and therefore people over whom he would hold sway. The numbers represent a combination of disgruntled, genuinely aggrieved and opportunists [persons], and calling for his release to quell the violence is not a guarantee. It would give him and his supporters political kudos,” he told Crux.

“It also runs the risk of setting a precedent that others whose day in court is close might try similar tactics,” Pearson said.

The recent violence and accompanying looting marks a stain on the hopes and dreams triggered by the collapse of Apartheid in 1994, but the cleric believes those expectations should “always be tempered by the harsh reality that they started from a legacy of injustice, and so were always going to be hugely difficult to implement. “

He said giving life to the hopes and dreams has been further impeded by a “culture of corruption.”

“We must remember that every act of corruption is a theft from the poor and so an already toxic reality was compounded by this pathology,” Pearson said.

“One of the truths we are going to have to deal with going forward is not just a firm destruction of the culture of corruption but also a close examination of the way privilege still clings to its previous beneficiaries.”

“Racial privilege is still one of the elephants in the room and that too has to be interrogated. If these pathologies are not dealt with then we will always have a deeply fractured nation and social cohesion will always be tenuous,” he said.

Meanwhile, Catholic Bishops in South Africa have called for an end to the violence.

In a July 13 statement, the President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Umtata, called on South Africans to rise above political interests to protect lives.

“Let us not allow the difference of opinion on political matters to be hijacked by criminal intentions to create anarchy in our country that will result in a worse social and economic situation than we presently find ourselves in,” Sipuka said.

“To those who incite this violence and looting for political ends, we call upon them to rise above political interests, to protect life, and to preserve the common good,” he added.

Recalling that it was dialogue that triggered the end of apartheid and the transition to democracy, Sipuka called on all South Africans to “continue to choose the path of dialogue” to settle their differences.