Lesson One from the Zuma riots: You’re on your own, baby!

William Saunderson-Meyer writes on meaning of the state failures we have just witnessed


The unrest has been like a flash flood scouring a mountain. It has opened deep crevasses in some places and at others uncovered the occasional granite outcrop.

It’s a storm that has irretrievably changed the contour of the South African landscape but already we pretend that things can be as they were before. They can’t and they won’t.

What has happened will substantially affect everyone’s future, including those that were completely bypassed by the looting, burning and killing. I’m thinking particularly of those living in places like the Western Cape who seem smugly to dismiss the upheavals as a storm in a tribal calabash — just those pesky Zulus who every couple of decades need to let off steam in a violent outburst. 

It would be foolish to think that the many criminals and wannabe revolutionaries spread throughout the country haven’t learnt tactical lessons from what happened in the past fortnight. The Economic Freedom Fighters, which makes no secret of its revolutionary aspirations or its willingness to attack physically its opponents and to scapegoat minorities, is one such group. It will feel disappointed at not being able to seize any advantage from the unrest and will vow to do better next time.

But the main lesson that we all need to take is one of life and death. These events are a stark reminder that in terms of the physical safety of you and your loved ones, as well as the preservation of your property and tools to earn a living, you are entirely on your own.

The perpetually avuncular President Cyril Ramaphosa — a Financial Mail columnist this week describes him as having “a good heart” — has shown with his government’s orders to the SA Police Service to keep a low profile and avoid casualties, that all citizens are not equal. There is an African National Congress ranking to the value of life that, not coincidentally, follows the reality of its empowerment policies. In decreasing order of innate human value are ANC cadres; ANC supporters; black Africans; Indians, coloureds and whites.

The unrest highlights that South Africa now meets one of the most important criteria of a failed state: an inability or refusal by the state to carry out its primary function of protecting its citizens. When confronted, the government rolled over and played dead. In several KZN towns, the SAPS barricaded themselves into their stations and had to be protected, as well as resupplied with ammunition, by the citizens they were supposed to be protecting.

At no stage did the SAPS take the most basic actions against the looters, a security expert pointed out to me. The two most viable weapons for mob control are water cannon and tear gas. Rubber bullets are way down the list.  

“If you want to clear out an enclosed area like a shop or mall, a single canister of tear gas is all it takes. Disregarding water cannon for the moment, in all the hundreds of shots on television, did you see even one tear gas canister thrown?”

The other unlikely “protectors of democracy” were the taxi mafia. After decades of using assassination and arson to eliminate competitors and to wring concessions from the government, the taxi bosses were momentarily cast as heroes when they intervened, out of self-interest, to prevent looting during the later stages of the unrest. 

It was a disquieting reflection of where lies the real balance of power and credibility of intent in South Africa. One could watch on television how three taxis containing half a dozen men were easily able to interdict a rampaging mob from attacking a shopping mall, while a much larger force of nominally better armed and trained SAPS officers had about much deterrent effect as a row of display mannequins in a shop window.

The real heroes, though, were a patchily armed citizenry. They saved not only the bacon of the communities they were protecting but, contrary to the lurid warnings of many — Britain’s Daily Telegraph wrote of Howick’s “heavily armed gangs of white vigilantes”, whereas the photograph accompanying the report shows a group of men of indeterminate ethnic origin carrying paintball guns — the militias appear to have been generally well disciplined and restrained.

The assistance of armed citizens was gratefully accepted by a thinly stretched SAPS, when and where it did deploy. At the very same spot in Howick where the Daily Telegraph photographed the scary “white vigilantes”, I passed a group of scruffy, tired-looking men of all races, operating a roadblock under the command of two SAPS officers and a municipal traffic cop. 

Unpalatable though it may be to an anti-gun lobby that has broad media support (as well as generous funding from philanthropists residing in safe Western countries), it would be insanity for the government to proceed with its stated intention to disarm South Africans. Bizarrely, given that it is his own administration that is introducing the Firearms Control Amendment Bill, Ramaphosa has been quoted as speculating that the plan to end the licensing of guns for “self-defence” might well prove to be unconstitutional.

In a country where there are 3m licensed firearms and, by official estimates, almost as many unlicensed ones, it is madness or a calculated invitation to conflagration, to reduce the ability of law-abiding citizens to defend themselves. A more rational solution for a government facing violent insurrection is to constrain firearm ownership within some kind of state security structure. 

South Africa’s previous system of Commandos — a volunteer part-time force that was part of the army but often deployed under the authority of the police — was enormously successful in maintaining security, especially in rural areas and at key points. Despite the political stigma to the ANC of the Commandos being a Boer innovation dating back more than a century — ANC antipathies could perhaps be allayed by calling them the Comrados? — the system has much to commend it. 

It’s a low-cost way of bolstering a SA National Defence Force and SAPS, both of which are woefully understaffed. And because of being geographically dispersed, the Commandos could deploy in a fraction of the time that it takes the army to mobilise.

It’s also an alternative to race-based vigilantism. Legal firearm ownership is not, contrary to popular belief, the sole preserve of whites. In absolute numbers, it is spread pretty evenly through all the population groups. 

Area-based Commandos, pulling all races into a disciplined SAPS-led force, would make far less likely the allegedly racial confrontation between African looters and Indian homeowners that last week left 20 dead in the Phoenix community outside Durban. On the other hand, if communities like Phoenix are disarmed as is intended, it will only mean that the next conflict between the defenders and invaders will be decided by who has the most potent illegally acquired firepower. 

The unacknowledged motivation behind the disbanding of the Commandos in 2003 — supposedly to be replaced by “specialised police units” that never materialised — and now against licensed gun owners, is that the ANC fears a white “counter-revolution”. It’s an understandable but nevertheless illusory fear.

Since 1994, the most potent efforts at “rebellion” from the white right have been a hare-brained fantasy in the early 2000s involving Boeremag plans to shell Cape Town from a submarine, as well as lining the national road to Zimbabwe with food parcels to encourage blacks to leave. In contrast, last week’s “insurrection”, one of the most destructive and deadly single eruptions in our history, was triggered by disenchanted ANC supporters, including 12 senior party members identified by the ANC national executive as the ringleaders.

To find the biggest threat to the South African state, do the arithmetic. 

The death toll in the Boeremag rebellion was zero and the ringleaders, convicted of treason, will spend up to 30 years in jail. The death toll in the ANC insurrection is 258 in KZN and 79 in Gauteng, and we’re still counting. 

As to the likelihood of swingeing prison sentences for the most recent traitors? Probably zero.

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