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Indians were the soft target of looting insurgents’ Plan B

The events of this week were not a mass mobilisation of the poor. This was not a protest movement against hunger, corruption or inequality. It was a mobilisation by corrupt, greedy politicians and their provocateurs to foment chaos, sabotage key infrastructure and topple the regime led by President Cyril Ramaphosa. 

What is manifesting in KwaZulu-Natal, possibly orchestrated during a cup of tea (when Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema visited ex-president Jacob Zuma in February) resonates with the mentality of a sinister mind — Bell Pottinger 2.0. 

Sadly, the poor are drawn into the mix in a masterful diversion. Legitimate and real frustrations are exploited for political expediency. For these persons, the poor have never mattered. They are only to be used and manipulated. And their desperation allows it. 

Though it is undisputed that there is an urgent need to immediately resolve the economic oppression endured by the poor and the persistent structural issues that exacerbate this harm, what happened in KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng is not the mobilisation of South Africa’s poor.

The majority of South Africa’s poor are decent, humble, dignified people with a tremendous amount of self-respect, integrity and adherence to ubuntu values, as encapsulated in the response of one elderly lady arrested for looting: “I know this is wrong.” 

The poor know right from wrong, and they demonstrate amazing self-restraint. Ask any aid worker on the ground in South Africa doing relief work. If it was hunger, poverty or inequality, then why didn’t the poor in the Eastern Cape, South Africa’s poorest province, revolt?

The poor have been drawn into the foray, not by choice, but through desperation. But they were the minority. 

In the media, poverty porn is about exploiting the conditions of the poor in order to generate sympathy for a cause. On the Netflix series Money Heist, this was called “Plan Cameroon”. 

For the insurgents, Plan Cameroon was the equivalent of Plan B should Plan A fail. Plan A was the belief that there would be a countrywide revolt and the looters would be seen as the heroes — the revolutionaries. If it backfired, Plan B would kick in: the Pottinger spin. Present the looters as “the poor,” push the narrative about hunger, unemployment and racism. Buy sympathy from the audience to achieve two objectives. The first is a deviation from reality and the second is the politics of scapegoating — find someone else to blame for the mayhem. 

Let me address the first. The reality was an attempted coup to get Zuma back into power or at the least, to prevent the prosecution of key figures guilty of corruption and looting of the state coffers. This is the looting of the hierarchy. 

In Plan B, the deviation from the reality would be to claim that the poor were fed up and took to the streets. This would divert attention from the insurgency and lure the masses into identifying with the looters who are now identified as “the poor”. The goal is to win public opinion and drown out the sabotage of key infrastructure. But presenting the looters as “the poor” just doesn’t cut it.

‘Looting does not spontaneously emerge’

Research by Guy Lamb from the UCT Safety and Violence Initiative has found that “looting does not spontaneously emerge. It usually comes about due to instigation by influential individuals or groups who actively articulate that looting against specific targets is permissible and justifiable.” Lamb’s research also indicated that looting was considered socially acceptable. 

Poor people simply don’t go to key infrastructure sites that are not in their immediate vicinity. They also have their own agency, character and spirit. This is clear to all who work with the poor on a daily basis. 

So who went to these sites and why? If the desperation of the poor centred on food, why did they come prepared to burn the businesses that employed them or their families or medical facilities that healed them?

The second goal of Plan Cameroon would be for the insurgents and their rent-a-crowd to deflect from their culpability to a target that would allow them to score brownie points. It had to be a feasible target and a hot potato. Racial tension would work best. But which race? The whites were strong, usually protected by private security and armed to the teeth. They would be a formidable opponent. Indians would be a softer target and for many, Indians had to be eradicated. 

History of anti-Indian sentiment

This has been a continuing narrative in KwaZulu-Natal from the 1949 anti-Indian pogroms to the dangerous rhetoric spewed by the Mazibuye African Forum. The history between Indians and black people would thus sell the story. 

The racial tension and trauma of the 1949 anti-Indian pogroms, which resulted in two days of rioting were exceptionally violent.  Many Indian women were raped, properties burnt and premises looted.

On politicsweb.co.za, analyst Piet Swanepoel says: “The violence was initially limited to destruction of property and looting, which subdued after a few hours of rioting … there was an organised element to the riots within the Zulu community and [t]he talk was that the time had come to rid the country of the Indians.” 

The rioters of 1949 knew that there would be a slow police response so they went on a rampage and celebrated afterwards. 

Social media posts show the same for 2021: looters drinking and braaiing, dancing and laughing in celebration of their loot, while others took videos of what they looted. 

For many Indians, the 1949 pogrom is a trauma regularly resurrected through populist, dangerous rhetoric uttered by Julius Malema and others such as the Mazibuye African Forum. Perhaps this is the reason that the Indians tried to organise themselves, guarding their communities more effectively than they guarded their businesses. For many, this week has been a re-enactment of 1949.

In 1949, it is argued that the death of more than 100 Indians, the destruction of 300 buildings and the damage done to 2 000 structures during the pogrom were justified because an Indian storekeeper in Durban assaulted an African youth. It was collective punishment. 

Plan B would satisfy those baying for Indian blood and could be sloganeered using the “they are racists” argument. The plan was simple: push the narrative that all Indians are racist and exploitative and that the masses are suffering because of the Indians. 

Remember, yesterday they were suffering because of the foreigners. Tomorrow it will be because of the whites. Thereafter, as Frantz Fanon reminds us, it will be the Xhosas and so on and so on.  Collective punishment. 

It is notable that Indians constitute 2.6% of the total South African population and an even smaller percentage are affluent. The majority are low and middle-income workers themselves, not employers. 

So, is there any hope? If last week has taught us anything, it is the simplest truth – that South Africans are amazing, decent and dignified. Well, that is, those who love this country and its people. Together they will stand, and together they will overcome.

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Quraysha Ismail Sooliman
Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman is project manager at the Centre for Mediation in Africa at the University of Pretoria

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