/ 13 July 2021

The looting of shops during protests is a greater societal problem than meets the eye

Safrica Politic Unrest
A picture taken in Vosloorus, southeast of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021 shows the Gold Spot Shopping Centre after being looted. - South Africa said it was deploying troops to two provinces, including Johannesburg, after unrest sparked by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma led to six deaths and widespread looting. Overwhelmed police are facing mobs who have ransacked stores. Six people have died, some with gunshot wounds, and 219 people have been arrested, according to a police tally issued before the army deployed. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP) (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images)

The violent protests and looting currently taking place throughout the country are a reflection of the depth of the poverty thousands of South Africans continue to be live with on day to day.

Misdiagnosing events poses a danger. It does not address South Africa’s triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. The World Bank has named South Africa the most economically unequal country in the world, 26 years into democracy.

Though the debates are centred around the imprisonment of the former president of both the ANC and the country, the people are frustrated by their material conditions, which continue to worsen. At least some of the looting is as a result of hunger, as is evidenced by the stealing of essentials such as maize meal. The reality is that many people live from hand to mouth, to going to bed on an empty stomach. 

Statistics South Africa records that South Africa’s unemployment rate rose to a new record high of 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021. The government has done little to nothing to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the poorest of the poor. 

While I do not condone hooliganism and criminal elements, these events are not only unfortunate but have potential to spark tensions that will lead our country into a catastrophe of epic proportions. Violence must have no place in a democratic country as it undermines the moral fabric of our social democracy and the rule of law; but people’s patience is not lifelong.

Protests in South Africa are characterised by looting of shops and the damaging of public infrastructure that is used by those same protesters, i.e. schools, clinics and police stations.

The violence continues until the target becomes foreign nationals, and then to the most vulnerable in our society, women and children.

The looting of shops during protests presents a greater societal problem what meets the eye. South Africa is a violent nation; a violence characterised by poverty and unending psychological effects of the apartheid regime.

In many ways, the legacy of apartheid endures. A 2018 World Bank report on poverty and inequality in South Africa found that previously disadvantaged South Africans, blacks in particular, hold fewer assets, have fewer skills, earn lower salaries and are still more likely to be unemployed. 

However, the ideas of universal grants and quantitative easing are rubbished by the ruling elite because it compromises the oppressor they share a table with. It is difficult to transform a society that is colonial in character when those at the helm  and leading in government are shareholders of these banks and mines that they are supposed to regulate. This is not a protest, it  is a ripple effect of poverty. 

We urgently need to address the realities faced by the black majority and to develop a coherent programme to prevent and respond to violence.