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Out of the arson and looting come glimmers of light

Let’s face facts, as a nation we expected fallout from the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma and at the same time we cheered the constitutional court for this long overdue course of justice. Yet none of us, myself as a political analyst included, were prepared for the incendiary violence that began the night of July 11. 

I arrived at the epicentre of the chaos on Monday morning, 12 July. King Shaka airport was eerily quiet. All the shops were closed and there were hardly any taxis. The friend who was to fetch me had to turn around because so many roads were closed. I was stymied. What to do next? 

Finally, a Bolt ride arrived for a man going to Ballito and I hitched a lift, unsure of where I was going. My driver, Ntuthuko Vincent Malamba from Amanzimtoti, who remains my personal hero of the day, promised me that he could get me to the Bluff. Are you sure? I asked over and over again. I had heard the central business district was a war zone and we had to drive through it because the other roads were still blocked. 

“Don’t worry”, said Ntuthuko, “It has turned to looting in the CBD now. They aren’t interested in anything else, we will be fine.” He was right. We drove straight through the centre of Durban, where groups were congregated wearing designer clothing and deciding where to go next for some free shopping. Nobody was carrying food. Nobody cared about us. Ntuthuko constantly reassured me of this. My fear was clearly radiating as brightly as the red traffic light that halted us for what seemed like an eternity. 

I arrived safely on the Bluff to see groups of civilians of mixed ethnicity standing in front of shops and restaurants. For the rest of the day, I binge-watched the horror of the looting and arson that was ripping through eThekwini. What stood out was the bravery of the reporters and their sheer incomprehension as to the scale of the chaos. We saw women with groceries, but we also saw shops stripped of everything from TVs to tyres. It was a free-for-all. 

We watched reporters show us the police standing by, helpless, outnumbered. We saw President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday night, calmly (too calmly?) calling for the chaos to stop and reassuring the nation that the South African National Defence Force would be deployed en masse. Three days later there were still only 2 500 troops deployed. We binge-watched more — and more. 

As a nation we are still traumatised and scrambling for answers.

When analysing the chaos that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng in the week of 12 July, much of the instant analysis in the media has focused on single element causes. But why are single causal analyses such as food riots, pro-Zuma factionalism in the ANC, master-minded conspiracy theories involving unnamed “dirty dozen” instigators, structural and Covid-19 inequalities, failure of the police and army to respond fast enough and so forth so unsatisfying? 

Single causes are intuitively insufficient. Take my Bolt driver Ntuthuko as a case in point. He was highly aware of the shift from political protest to food raids and looting, a transition that occurred between Sunday the 11th and Monday the 12th when I arrived at King Shaka airport. Ntuthuko told me that in his area in Amanzimtoti, men were already carrying fridges, stoves, anything, everything on the night of the 11th.

For all of us, there is a cognitive dissonance between what we are hearing analytically and what we have seen reported live. We saw political factionalism on Twitter, Facebook and Whatsapp, we saw the food riots, we saw the looting, we saw the unemployed youth rebel and go shopping. We saw a frenzy of irrationality in action, the consequences of which will hurt both those in poverty who participated and those who did not. I saw a lot of this firsthand, but we all saw it on social media. 

Will this wave of anarchy change our understanding of protest and its political value in our democracy? There is no question. Peaceful protest is a democratic right, incitement to make the country ungovernable is not. The positive aspect of the events of last week was the strengthening of communitarian bonds. 

On the Bluff, shops stayed open all week, guarded by a mix of private security and civilians from diverse ethnicities. Vehicle entry points to the Bluff were controlled in the same way, assisting the smattering of police spread too thin on the ground throughout the city. As a predominantly mixed, strongly working class area, the Bluff still has what Kloof and Ballito do not: the curry den on the corner, and the locally owned and run superette. 

I survived the week on takeaways, because shop queues stretched for kilometres and stocks were low. Luckily I could walk to fetch my curry from across the road, where I met people from Kloof and other upper middle class areas who had driven to fetch a simple bunny chow because their malls were destroyed. This civilian communitarianism signals the possible germination of a deeply embedded democratic culture where ethnicity no longer divides. This may help with predictions of long waves of destabilisation.

This is also how we, as a nation, dealt with misinformation and disinformation on the riots, especially on platforms such as Twitter, TikTok, Facebook and Whatsapp. Citizens quickly reacted to Whatsapp group requests for help protecting areas targeted for looting, unlike our government leadership, who tell us the unlikely tale that 12 people masterminded this unprecedented chaos. Civilians became on the ground intelligence, further showing up the almost dead duck State Security Agency (SSA), which was caught napping or, it is rumoured, involved in the insurgency. The latter is not unlikely, given the SSA is a pro-Zuma construction of his corruption riddled presidency, which required a tailored secret service to prop up our naked emperor.

Across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, communitarian groups reacted quickly to likely threats of looting and burning. Civilians used common sense to approach potential threats by triangulating information on social media to ensure hoax messages were filtered out. Back home in Cape Town, intelligence sources closely monitored the social media coverage of potential looting on Saturday, 17 July 17. The united display of support from civilians for law and order gives hope that from the ashes a stronger democracy will emerge.

On a more sobering note, the magnitude of the political and economic crisis the riots raise is a volatile mix for future unrest. The estimated financial loss to GDP is estimated at about R50-billion. What are we seeing on a state level that encourages us to believe that our already disastrous Covid-affected economy, with 43.2% unemployment and 2.2-million job losses, will now not be compounded? 

The effect on eThekwini alone is dire. Acting city manager Musa Mbhele is on record stating that the city has experienced more than R1-billion of stock losses and R15-billion of property and equipment damage. Again, local businesses are the hardest hit with 55 000 informal traders disrupted. About 40 000 formal businesses have also been negatively affected. 

Between the riot fund, Sasria, and the efforts made by the presidency to rally more than 90 captains of industry to put in place social security safety nets, there are glimmers of light. Along with these safety nets, which may include the repurposing of Covid relief, according to Ramaphosa’s statement on 20 July, the revival of businesses is going to require a team effort economically. We can only hope that the presidency will work on rapid, pro-active restructuring of both our inept political intelligence nerve centre that is the State Security Agency as well as of the socioeconomic tinderbox that inequality continues way too long after the end of apartheid. More Mandela moments, and with this crash and burn, may the Zuma era be banished for good.

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Lisa Thompson
Lisa Thompson is a political economist and public-sector reform analyst at the University of the Western Cape

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