/ 22 July 2021

The effects of the recent looting on South Africa’s young democracy

Looting Ethekwini
The 2021 July riots were the most widespread, coordinated, and visible instance of looting in South Africa.

Who could forget that, a little more than 27 years ago, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were the epicentre of death and destruction, during what history shall forever recall as South Africa’s “low-intensity civil war” of the mid-1980s to the early 1990s.

At the risk of inviting much criticism for attempting to quantify the sacrifices made by leaders of the liberation struggle who have gone before, the period of apartheid’s penultimate years was arguably the most volatile in the history of modern-day South Africa. It tested the mettle and legitimacy of the ANC to lead our country’s transition from an apartheid state, to what former president Thabo Mbeki, would in later years term the “the dawning of a new dawn’’.

What many people today, particularly the youth, may not immediately recall is that South Africa’s new dawn almost never came into being.

In the latter half of the 1980s, the ushering in of “talks about talks’’ between sworn enemies (namely the apartheid state and the liberation struggle movements) after decades of conflict breathed new life into the idea first envisaged in the Freedom Charter of 1955 — that South Africa belonged to all who live in it.

Out of the ashes of conflict and untold loss of life, the realisation that ours was a shared destiny, fuelled by a singular desire to save our beloved South Africa from destruction, would be the impetus for national reconciliation and nation-building.

However, the road to the vibrant and maturing democracy that South Africa is today becoming, was never guaranteed nor inevitable — women and men who believed in its viability fought and worked hard to secure it.

The years between 1990, when liberation struggle movements were unbanned, and political leaders released from prison, and 1994, when our democracy was born, after the watershed “one man, one vote” of that same year — were probably the most uncertain years in determining the future of our country.

A spirit of mistrust, given our racial, ethnic, cultural and political differences, gave rise to the unprecedented polarisation of South African society along these fault lines — with devastating consequences.  

This is the time, as many political and social scientists would agree, during which our founding president, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, guided by the collective wisdom of the ANC, first rose to the challenge of the office of president of the republic, as the moral and legitimate leader of the people of South Africa.

Madiba would invest himself in creating a lasting legacy of nation-building and national reconciliation: helping to cement a fundamental building block into the fabric of our constitutional democracy; ensuring that ours would be a society premised on the respect and protection of universal human rights; that free enterprise would be allowed to flourish; and that the strong would protect and uplift the weak and vulnerable among us.

What Madiba also was at pains to impress on all of society, was the notion of the supremacy of the rule of law, which underpins our constitutional order and guarantees its viability.

Over the past three decades, a lot of political work has been invested in building bridges between a people previously divided.

South Africa, despite ongoing issues such as creating more structural equity in the economy to foster greater social cohesion and stability, has made significant progress towards improving the human condition of, in particular, the black African majority. Admittedly, more work is required in this regard if we are to avert the deepening crisis of the economic divide between the poor and well-off in our society.

Such work will, however, be difficult to carry out if we allow the scenes we witnessed during the six-day looting spree (mostly the destruction of businesses and private-investment infrastructure), in our sister provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to continue unabated. 

Although this was evident at the beginning, we now confidently know that some among us, knowingly and deliberately, created an atmosphere of panic, destruction and mayhem with the sole purpose of rendering our constitutional democracy null and void.

Preying on the very real struggles of the poor in society — including significant and widespread poverty, in particular acute household hunger — those who unsuccessfully sought to provoke a popular insurrection authored and distributed messages instigating the mass looting of businesses and property. This was to advance their narrow interests and brazen attempts to subvert the rule of law and to prevent the ANC’s work to self-correct, and fight corruption and the pilfering of public funds by those entrusted with delivering a better life for all South Africans.

We now know the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma was dangerously manipulated by some among us and used as the catalyst for the mayhem we witnessed, but certainly wasn’t the sole inspiration. 

What manifested at face value as chaos, anarchy and downright criminality was a carefully orchestrated attempt to scupper our democratic project to return back to the days of impunity in our country. 

What the planners of this calamity neglected to take into account was that South Africa’s chosen path towards reconstruction and development post the democratic breakthrough was, and is, based on the will of the people — and that any attack on it would be defended by the people.

This is why we saw the people — through civil society formations such as the South African Council of Churches, the South African National Civic Association, the taxi associations, the community policing forums and other organs of people’s power  — mobilising a popular front and affirming the constitution of the republic and supremacy of the rule of law. They said no to the further destruction of jobs and infrastructure that the democratic state has worked so hard to bring to fruition.  

The ratcheting up of racial tensions, through the calling of citizens to attack, maim and kill fellow citizens, is unforgivable; it is an ugly reminder of the blight on the soul of our nation when, during the terrible, dark days of the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, thousands perished.

Social cohesion — beyond what is now emerging as racially inspired violence in parts of KwaZulu-Natal, in what will certainly set race relations back several decades, including the now resultant distrust between owners of industry and the poor — has been dealt a severe blow.

The Eastern Cape stands shoulder to shoulder with the provincial governments of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in contributing towards the rebuilding effort. We hope, once again, to remind South Africans and our national government that, having navigated the pitfalls of Covid-19, our commitment to implement the provincial development plan — to the economy, create jobs and reduce poverty — has never been more clear. We will honour this commitment in our planning and execution of service delivery and infrastructure build programmes in the province.

We trust that the national treasury will bear this in mind, when considering a reconstruction assistance package for regions affected by the recent unrest; funds deriving from the national fiscus are intended for critical development programmes, on which social cohesion and social stability are also dependent. 

We look forward to constructive discussions with our partners in government in this regard.

Among the lessons we ought to learn from this calamity is that progressive democracies, premised on the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution, cannot allow themselves to be held to ransom by the wanton destruction of anarchists in dictating where public funds should be spent.

The use of the guaranteed right to peaceful protest cannot be the pretext for creating disorder and dictating in which regions public spending should occur, resulting in the very infrastructure intended to make life better for the communities that it serves being destroyed. This is counterproductive and, to put it simply, just plain wrong. 

Make no mistake, those responsible for fanning the flames of looting and the destruction of billions worth of businesses and infrastructure in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, have done much more than merely cause mayhem for political purposes; in fact, they may have rolled back the gains of the national democratic revolution for decades.