The past week has been a most satisfying time not only for South Africa’s rioters and looters. Equally quick to exploit the breach of rationality and common sense have been woke social theorists and obfuscating politicians.
Anyone who ever read a sociology tract at university or was part of a Marxist reading circle has been gifted the perfect opportunity to trundle out a defining explanation as to why South Africa is burning. As with the fashioning of all grand theories, it’s an exercise in taking observable phenomena and then distorting, manipulating or discarding the inconvenient parts that contradict the formulator’s ideological template.
New Frame, the avowedly “not-for-profit social justice media publication”, was quick off the mark to peg the turmoil as food riots by the poor that are turning “the wheel of history [by] appropriating the bread of life”. It writes that in Durban, “grassroot activists” — who apparently lack televisions to watch the remarkably unanimous preference of looters for wide-screen televisions over bags of mealie-meal — have noted that “without exception, food shops have been consistently targeted and food has been appropriated on a massive scale”.
Explanations elsewhere have more credibly touched on a range of factors, including the wealth divide; economic decay and unemployment; failed service delivery; deprivation and hunger; as well as longstanding racial and ethnic tensions and antipathies. And then there are those who pin the blame on political actors: Radical Economic Transform forces who seized upon the amateur dramatics of martyrdom surrounding the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, as the flint to light a fire that would engulf President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Truth is, there can be no single, overarching theory to explain what’s happening. As Oxford academic Johnny Steinberg writes in Business Day, “those who say we must choose between two rival explanations for the violence — a conspiracy among the elite versus the desperation of the poor — are surely wrong. It is so obviously both. Nobody can set fire to a field that is not already parched.”
There’s certainly more evidence of a political conspiracy than for New Frame’s risible theory of spontaneous bread riots heralding the fall of capitalism. Widespread mayhem and opportunistic criminality seem to have served as cover for attacks on strategic installations that offered little or no prospect of free shopping.
But then again, you don’t have to be a military genius to realise that the umbilical cord between the country’s biggest port and its economic powerhouse has strategic value. Truck burning as political theatre has been a national sport on the N3 for more than three years.
Despite the government repeatedly identifying such attacks on trucking — along with the torching of passenger trains and busses — as “economic sabotage”, it has failed utterly to prevent them. More than 200 truckers have been killed and economic costs run into the billions but this has happened with virtual impunity, the SA Police Service managing only a handful of arrests for possession of stolen goods.
The African National Congress is pushing hard the narrative that the past week’s unrest is a calculated and sophisticated attempt at a coup d'état, at a minimum within the party and conceivably within the country. While this may have some truth in it, it is also a politically convenient way to absolve the government’s of its failures.
Blaming unnamed instigators and agitators is a universal “get out of a pickle” card for politicians and government officials. When a perfectly predictable disaster strikes, instead of holding accountable poor leadership and failed execution, attribute it rather to the malevolent machinations of your foes.
Shifting responsibility for the chaos and cost of the unrest onto a sinister cabal of saboteurs and killers, would play to Ramaphosa’s advantage. If he can survive widespread public disillusionment at his lacklustre leadership and the fumbling of so many key ministers — especially those for Police, State Security and Defence — Ramaphosa will be able to vigorously clean the ANC house and rally the waning support of voters who see him as the least-bad option.
Initially, all the government ministers quoted in the media played down the scale of the violence and scoffed at calls to urgently deploy the military to assist a thinly-stretched police force. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, they shifted in unison to a very different hymn sheet: treason was afoot and not only were 5,000 soldiers quickly despatched to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, but Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula promised 25,000 more.
This would make it the biggest deployment of the SA National Defence Force since 1994, far eclipsing the number deployed last year to enforce the Covid lockdown. But it’s not going to happen. Mapisa-Nqakula is feeding the public bully beef and calling it caviar.
As African Defence Review director Darren Olivier points out, the SANDF simply doesn’t have that number of ground troops. Even pulling in reserves, MPs, gunners and support staff like cooks and bottle-washers, to muster 17,000 would be an achievement.
Prior to the reluctant mobilisation of the SANDF, in Ramaphosa’s uninspiring televised appeal for an end to the violence — Financial Mail cruelly but accurately described his mien as being that of a fundraiser speaking at the local Rotary Club — the president blamed it all on “ethnic mobilisation”, a thinly veiled allusion to Zuma’s support among the Zulu population. The following day, the ANC’s national executive provided the police with a list of 12 party members that it had identified as the “ringleaders” of the unrest. This is a feat of sleuthing of Sherlock Holmes proportions from an organisation that collectively struggles to tie its shoelaces.
The accusations of sedition have become steadily more overt. Deputy Minister of State Security, Zizi Kodwa, said the unrest was driven by people “experienced in running operations”. He added: “This campaign is not sporadic. It is not spontaneous.”
Then came the “exclusives” drip-fed to various powerful media outlets. The “intelligence from highly placed but confidential sources” was that former uMkhonto we Sizwe operatives were the “kingpins” behind the violence. It’s no secret that the MK veterans’ association was disbanded because of its support for Zuma.
We will only know whether the official version of reality is correct once treason trials commence. But until then, the question to be asked is why — given the supposed mass of incriminating evidence in the hands of the SSA and the ANC national executive — the violence was not forestalled or at least quickly nipped in the bud after starting, by acting against the ringleaders.
Implausibly, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo claims that this is pretty much what happened. Rejecting criticism that the riots had caught the government flat-footed, Dlodlo claimed that the SSA had “averted a lot more violence than had been observed” by preventing planned attacks on substations, ANC provincial offices in KZN, and attacks at Durban’s Westville prison. Since no one has been arrested or charged in this regard, there is zero evidence, so far, to support Dlodlo’s assertion.
Nevertheless, we do now have the unusual situation where a government that has destroyed the economy and fumbled the Covid pandemic, is cheerfully admitting that factional rivalries within the party have become insurrection and bloodshed on the streets. It also explains the kid-glove approach taken to the rioters.
Weighing heavily on Ramaphosa’s every response to the present crisis will be the Marikana massacre in 2012, when an ill-trained and poorly commanded police detachment shot dead 34 striking miners. Ramaphosa took a grave reputational hit when it was revealed that, as a director of the mining company involved, he had urged the police to respond forcefully. Another Marikana would sink him without a trace, which is why the response to the violence and looting was to leave ordinary South Africans to survive or die.
In the absence of a coherent police response, were it not for ordinary citizens forming street-corner militias, the loss of life and property would have been catastrophic. In a number of towns in KZN, the police had to rely on the assistance of impromptu citizen groups to protect beleaguered police stations and even to provide SAPS with additional ammunition.
And contrary to the expectations of the foreign media and the disappointment of many local Cassandras, there is little or no evidence of whites reverting to archetype and gleefully gunning down blacks. Instead, South Africans of all races have stood together, at times literally shoulder to shoulder, manning the barricades to keep rampaging mobs at bay. After this, Cele’s proposed legislation to end private ownership of firearms for self-defence is, pardon the pun, dead in the water.
We should not allow our relief at the apparent waning of the unrest to make us forgiving of the ANC’s failure to fulfil the primary function of the state, the protection of the life and property of its citizens. Nor should we forget that the path to this explosion of anger and criminality has been a long time coming.
It did not require any remarkable prescience to write more than three years ago in this column: “South Africa is burning. It’s not yet a conflagration but to ignore its potential to become one would be a terrible mistake.
“The fiery eruptions are claimed to be about failed service delivery, or corruption, or too little policing. Or, in the case of taxi protests, too much policing. Or the wrong cadre in the job. Or all of the above.
“The resulting militancy and rage can be called resistance. Or call it revolution. Call it insurrection. Or cloak it in euphemism: ‘Angry protests that degenerated…’.
“Whatever the terminology of the propagandists and the apologists, the situation is poised. The sporadic community violence that has been bubbling nationwide for years is becoming more frequent, more brazen, more organised, and more directed at securing specific political outcomes.
“The problem needs to be addressed, but SAPS seems to lack the ability to do anything and the ANC seems to lack the courage to do anything. Into that vacuum slide the firebrands, the criminals, and the political hyenas.”
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