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What just happened here?

Was it a coup? Was it an attempt at forcing the early release of Zuma? Was it a spontaneous uprising? Was it a desperate scramble for food by the hungry? Was it an opportunistic looting spree by organised crime?

Most likely, a bit from each of columns A through E. But there’s another factor: this is part of a sustained war on the poor, often waged by those who most claim to be on their side.

First, let’s consider the coup theory. Whether we get to the truth of this or not depends on whether our very fractured and damaged law enforcement get their act together. Back in November 2021, I wrote an article on how President Trump’s moves had all the hallmarks of a coup. Less than two months later, I was proved right (even if the Republicans are denying that it happened at all). The Zuma faction has been setting up the conditions for this for a long time. They have been deflecting from their wholesale selling-out of the state to the Guptas by attacking “Indians” – not their kind, but the kind who are trying to correct their hollowing-out of the state. They have been talking up the horrors of white monopoly capital while destroying the prospects of the poor by looting infrastructure projects that build opportunity. They have been talking radical economic transformation while everything they do enriches a tiny elite. The next step of a coup is to orchestrate chaos that is at bottom caused by the plotters’ own corruption and step in to “save the day”. So yes, it fits the pattern. But there is so much more: we can’t for sure say that this was the intent.

The jailing of Zuma was definitely a trigger. Here in the Eastern Cape, there were calls on social media to shut down South Africa, clearly linked to the Zuma jailing. But there was no significant buy-in. Where I live in Makhanda, one truck was torched before the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) mobilised to urge the community not to join in. In other places, taxis intervened, determined not to have their income sabotaged. During the 2014 election campaign, I encountered an ANC campaign team and they absolutely tore Zuma apart – and these were ANC loyalists. We should note too that before he was pushed out of office, his approval was at 20% and dropping.

So anger at his jailing was real but limited in extent and can’t explain what followed – even where he does have a stong following.

There was no doubt some spontaneity to the uprising as well as anything that was orchestrated. There is a mix of a clear pattern and randomness in the violence. Hotspots form a tight cluster in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, with very few outside those provinces. 

That spontaneity arises from frustration at lack of progress to equality, the depravations of Covid and a general feeling of malaise arising from broad governmental dysfunction. Services don’t work, infrastructure fails, vast amounts of money is looted by insiders. And when someone is caught with their fingers in the till, where are the consequences? Tens or hundreds of millions of rand – even billions – disappear and culprits are treated like the naughty child who ate all the pudding.

Scenes of traffic jams of looters in upmarket cars have led to disbelief in an uprising of the poor. But there are no doubt many who grabbed at the opportunity for food; on social media I see a lot of “we are hungry now” rhetoric. This is a real factor even if it is not the trigger. Since early in the pandemic, food security has been a huge issue. Those of us in urban areas could work on food aid but the rural poor are often left out of these concerns. I hear from contacts in hotspots that rural small towns have had far more damage relative to size than urban areas.

Finally, the traffic jams of upmarket vehicles, sometimes with trailers, raise a concern that organised crime is cashing in on the looting. 

Another big concern is one-million bullets stolen from an import in the harbour. Whether this cache goes to crime or a coup plan, a lot of people could die.

But for me what’s missing is analysis of ordinary people caught up in this – on both sides. Damaging though it is for a giant warehouse or chain store to be trashed and looted, small and informal businesses that are too small to have insurance will have a much harder time recovering. The rural poor who had marginal incomes could end up with nothing if there isn’t equitable recovery. 

Where I live, I have access to the UPM and have some idea of how such constituencies see the world. Another organisation closer to the action is Abahlali baseMjondolo, who represent shack dwellers. They were directly attacked – a message they put out was edited to add in some hatred towards Islam, which is contrary to what they stand for. This could have directly led to attacks on their homes including a number being set on fire.

Those of us living in relatively comfortable homes may have been rattled and shaken up but the real deep problem in this country is inequality and we cannot understand properly not only what happened but how to stop it from happening again unless we engage with the poor and take poverty elimination seriously.

Some have said the violence was counter-revolutionary. For that to be true, we need a revolution to undo. That revolution is yet to happen, and it does not have to be a revolution of blood and fire. What we really need is a total mindset change starting with #PoorLivesMatter.

Unless we make #PoorLivesMatter the starting point, we continue to sit on a tinderbox where any self-serving opportunist can set things off again, whether for purposes of a coup, a short-term political win, or any of the others you can think of. And once the flames die down, the poor are worse off than before.

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Philip Machanick
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University

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