Zuma riots: Seven key take-aways

Heinrich Matthee writes inter alia on how this epidemic of violence can be arrested

Last week is another country, when Covid was the main epidemic of concern. Stephen Burbeck called riots behavioural epidemics, whose patterns are similar to those of health epidemics. The riot epidemic is now South Africa’s immediate concern.

There are seven take-aways from the news of the past few days. They do not pretend to explain the whole dynamic situation, which could still iterate and pivot in many ways. However, they give some pointers for business and communities looking at their next steps.

1. Political factions and criminal gangs are key actors

The interactions between political factions and criminal gangs will be key during the current unrest. The sentencing and imprisonment of President Jacob Zuma was the main political trigger for some in his faction to start inciting and organizing protests. Police minister Bheki Cele claims that an economic sabotage campaign aimed at hospitals and other infrastructure is afoot.

It is difficult not to see some attacks in this category. Communication structures were targeted and more than 100 mobile-phone towers were destroyed. In Alexandra, Mamelodi, Kagiso and Durban, four community radio stations were ransacked and forced off the air.  

However, once protests start, they develop their own dynamics. In this case, the protests morphed into riots beyond the political actors and also involved organized local groups and criminal gangs, as well as opportunist looters from working and middle class circles.

The riots show some similarities with the riots in France in 2005 and in London in August 2011. I was working in South London during the riots in 2011, 500 yards from a police station that was completely overwhelmed by various crises, when looters emptied the electronics shops in the market mall 200 yards away. Over days, the rioters and looters also torched shops, houses and cars in London and several cities. Opportunism and organized crime ruled.

Of course, in the case of South Africa, there is a very different political order compared to the United Kingdom. Some of the criminal gangs and local groups probably already have links to Zuma allies, as they had with the ANC during the guerilla war analyzed by historian Stephen Ellis in External Mission.

2. Government has no authority in vast tracks  

Separately from factional politics, organized local groups used the opportunity in the past week to target specific businesses and farms. The operations of paper producer Sappi Ltd., building supplies company Cashbuild Ltd., state port and freight rail operator Transnet SOC Ltd. were disrupted too. The Beer Association stated that specialised manufacturing facilities were being targeted.

At present, most of the media focus is on the mobs of urban opportunists that looted more than 200 shopping malls. In Pietermaritzburg and Durban, looters from low-income households mostly went for the basics such as food, baby supplies and detergents while middle class looters came in vehicles to load up with furniture and appliances. Big warehouses sometimes took 48 hours to loot completely. However, after the looting was over, the buildings were often also torched in an organized way.

The absence of law enforcement forces in many areas during the past days of active looting and destruction was quite noticeable. Foreign policy-makers who are well-informed, know that Prof. Susan Booysen’s assessment in the Sunday Independent in 2015 regarding internal sovereignty is still valid: “The government has lost authority over vast tracts of South Africa, over the underworld where xenophobia, looting and parading mobs rule.” After the riots, the power of organized gangs and local bosses will be stronger in many areas.

3. The riots affected cities, towns and farms

Much of the media attention is on major urban centres. However, in some smaller towns in KwaZulu Natal, the town centres were wrecked beyond recognition. The riots have also spread to farms in KwaZulu Natal. All sugar mills in Kwazulu-Natal also closed after cane trucks were hijacked, mills threatened and cane farms set alight, said South African Canegrowers Chief Executive Thomas Funke. More than 70 fires were started on farms north of Pietermaritzburg in areas like New Hannover, Dalton, Wartburg and Appelsbosch.

Farmer have already suffered major losses because they cannot get their products to local markets and to shops. One will have to wait for new statements by those who usually blame the victims and support the looters’ cries of entitlement in South Africa. The riots will certainly not discourage those who have considered or already executed tens of land invasions parallel to the ANC’s pursuit of expropriation without compensation.  

4. “There is no police. We are the police.”

Not only Western investors are following the riot epidemic. Asian and Middle Eastern news channels are giving prominent coverage to it. In Johannesburg and Durban, Muslim mosques were torched. In the latter case, neither the fire brigade nor the police responded to calls for help. The popular Maulana Mohammed Motala of the Al Imdaad Foundation stated on Radio Islam International that mostly Muslim businesses were destroyed, one building after each other.

No law enforcement forces were to be seen in these areas. Residents experienced hours of tension, hearing cries and gunshots through the night. We now know that the males of households in predominantly Indian areas organized and defended their homes and the streets of their residential areas. Videos circulated of such groups in Woodlands and other areas. Others tried to barricade and protect their shops and businesses. Whatsapp groups were also formed, with one case of 750 mothers trying to buy bread, milk and nappies for their babies.

The civilian and community defence efforts prevented looters from entering neighbourhoods.. “There is no police. We are the police,” one community leader stated. In Phoenix and Chatsworth, tensions arose when looters on their way to the mall tried to use alternative routes through these areas. “On social media, tweets appeared condemning the defensive actions, and a Twitter account “Indians must fall” fuelled further social tension.

5. Regional and community dynamics trump

While the riots have occurred in Gauteng too, its most serious political impact to date was possibly on KwaZulu-Natal. The provincial ANC did not dare to take a strong stance against the politicized mayhem. Zulu structures and Zulu nationalist aspirations will play a major role in whether, when and how the riots fizzle out in KwaZulu Natal. Many of the riots are likely to reinforce rather than weaken non-violent Zulu politics in the near term.

To date, the riots have remained largely limited to some of the northern provinces. Afrikaner organizations like Solidarity, Afriforum, SAAI and Sakeliga, many of whose members favour more functional autonomy from the ANC-dominated state, are playing a key role there in community security structures and several community police forums. So are taxi associations in many parts of the country.

It remains to be seen to what degree the different contexts of the Western and Northern Cape provide a buffer or obstacles for riots. Those Coloureds, whites, Asians and blacks in the Western Cape favouring greater autonomy or peaceful independence could only have been confirmed in their views by recent events elsewhere.

6. Circuit breakers in a riot epidemic

Like epidemics, riots are very dynamic phenomena. Research by Laurent Bonnasse-Gahot and Henri Berestycki has shown that physical proximity is still a major feature in the circulation of ideas or behaviours during riots. In addition, strong interpersonal ties are important for dragging people into actions that confront social order. These two factors are important, both when trying to weaken rioters and when mobilizing civilian groups to reinforce their neighbourhood security.

Researchers of contagious riots distinguish between susceptible people, infected people, and recovered people. Someone 'susceptible' is a potential rioter, an 'infected individual' is an active rioter, and a 'recovered person' is one that stopped rioting. For now, the potential millions of “susceptible” people have far exceeded the “infected” rioters.

However, concentrations of the poor, well-organized gangs and the ANC’s factional strife exist in most provinces. They could fuel the formation of sizeable groups that calculate they can get away with looting, arson and sabotage attacks. Endogenous shifts among the rioters or exogenous events and shocks may still lead to surges or further containment.

Will the authorities and community structures in other provinces be able to create circuitbreakers, or at least be able to defend their key assets from riots? Will they be able to gain support from those many poor citizens and consumers who are struggling more as a result of the riots and their impact?

7. The hybrid regime continues

Police Minister Bheki Cele stated recently that people would not be allowed "to make a mockery of our democratic state." Meanwhile, democratic dynamics could mostly not explain the key political events of the last decade or predict the negative outcomes.

Have the intra-ANC political killings and intimidation that preceded the resignation of an ANC MP like Makhosi Khoza and admissions of fear by provincial ANC and opposition politicians now also stopped? Is the world-class value destruction of the economy and self-enrichment by ANC cadre deployment in cabinet, the civil service and parastatals now over? Will the praise or tacit recognition by the ANC of the violent campaigns by middle class students for various political and cultural causes on university campuses be revoked? Will the inability of the politicized law enforcement agencies to deter or punish thousands of rapes, robberies and 175 000 murders over the past decade or so be rectified?

Of course not. I argued in various reports since 2014 that South Africa became a hybrid regime under Zuma. The locus of politics shifted to a new political arena where non-democratic and democratic forces, processes and rules of the game dominate. Henning Melber and Jason Sumich of the German Institute of Global and International Affairs came to similar conclusions.

If anything, the riots and unrest, like the Covid pandemic, will allow the security cluster to remain powerful and demand resources in the one-party dominant state. Given the various sociopolitical and economic challenges, variations of the hybrid regime will remain in place under Ramaphosa or his successor. As the African experts Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz state in Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instruments, African governments use crime and violence that they cannot control to weaken their opponents and to reorder the political environment.

The riots are only one example of how intimidation and the threat of violence have became a key part of political discourses and practices. During the local elections in 2016, more than 20 political candidates were killed. Organized intimidation and political assassinations are unlikely to be absent from the forthcoming local elections either. On 21 June 2021, Ramaphosa still stated that the ANC hangs its head in shame because of the political killings in its ranks.  

A new business normal?

The seven takeaways give a glimpse of political futures to business and communities. South Africa’s population expanded by almost 50% since 1994. The factionalized ANC will be even less able to deal with pressures and demands in future. As Henry Lewis said in 1906, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy.” In the case of South Africa, he may have wanted to say something about scarce water and tax resources too.

Government functionaries will continue to make sweeping statements about democracy, restabilization and transformation. However, factional struggles, violent crime and protest epidemics are here to stay. Private sector and community actors had better consider contingency plans: to improve their own security systems, but also to see how diplomacy can enhance their local embeddedness. In the medium term, many of them would need to consider where they could concentrate to establish safer zones. The riots are a proper wake-up call that they are operating in a multipolar South Africa.

Heinrich Matthee is a political analyst for business in the Middle East.