The unleashing of unprecedented devastation in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng raises crucial questions about the instigators.
It was obviously well orchestrated, and followed on the blatant incitement surrounding the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. Its roots lie in the criminalisation of the state and the weakening of the criminal justice system, during the Zuma presidency, combined with grinding poverty and the continuing disempowerment of a large sector of society.
The failure of the current faction-ridden government to react timeously to widespread, well-advertised incitement facilitated the escalation of the pillaging. The economic lookout in a country already bled almost dry by state looting is bleak, and the fragile threads of inter-racial goodwill have been torn asunder.
These fractures must be addressed urgently, as must the governance crisis and lack of true democracy in the country. South Africa has a long history of government corruption, but with the rise to power of Jacob Zuma and his cronies, the criminalisation of the state spread from state capture to the lowest levels of governance.
The collapse of service delivery in Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) followed the removal of a municipal manager who had achieved a clean audit, had started addressing corruption, and was apparently averse to taking political instructions. He survived a hit, but a pretext was found to remove him.
Suspended officials returned, and corruption spiralled out of control. This was in 2016 when criminal efforts ensured that those standing on an ANC ticket in Pietermaritzburg and Durban (eThekwini Metro, the biggest party voting bloc) were Zuma supporters.
Headed by staunch ally, mayor Zandile Gumede, (now facing corruption charges and suspended) corruption in eThekwini escalated, together with debt. The whole state has been criminalised because crime (looting, crooked tenders, kickbacks, nepotism, family businesses) has become a norm. Honest, diligent state employees risk their lives if they report what they witness, and some are killed, as protection for whistle-blowers is virtually non-existent.
Delays in prosecuting wrongdoers are a consequence of the impact of the Zuma years on the justice system. Dysfunctional governance is a direct outcome of this criminality, where service delivery coffers are routinely plundered. Despite elected officials at all levels of government, constituency work is the exception rather than the rule, including at the coal face of delivery, local government.
Instead of engagement, and empowerment through involving unemployed constituency members in building and maintaining their own homes, obscene amounts of money are dispensed to political allies to build shoddy homes for party supporters, and patronage is dispensed through public works programmes to supporters.
A culture of entitlement has been deliberately fostered for 27 years and, when promises do not materialise, protests follow. Violence is a weapon of the powerless to draw the attention of the government to their plight. Crucially, however, criminality dominates all levels of society, much of it fuelled by organised crime networks and inadequate justice, and criminals jump on the protest bandwagon.
Many poor areas are badly policed; criminals run riot and are not apprehended. Democratic societies allot the task of administering justice to the police and the courts, but the system is not working in South Africa, especially for poor people, so they often take the law into their own hands and vigilantism, in which innocent people may die, is common.
This is the context of the current devastation, with KZN the most Zuma-supporting of all the provinces. The Ramaphosa government is showing some anti-corruption fangs, and is now under siege for doing so by the Zuma faction – and its radical economic, highly disruptive, allies. It is this faction that is under threat of exclusion from the spoils of patronage it has enjoyed for so long.
Zuma, a consummate cultural entrepreneur, is playing the very dangerous ethnic card, claiming he is persecuted as he is a Zulu, but that is only a smokescreen for what are high political stakes. These forces have planned what is best described as pure sedition, using outrageously dangerous, violent tactics to confront and undermine the legitimate authority of the state.
It cynically used an army of poor, hungry, people as decoys, while the instigators withdrew, and wealthy accomplices moved in with cars to join the looting. In Cato Crest (Mayville, Durban) where criminals, and the councillor, are feared, incitement by well-known Zuma-supporters on July 11 was followed by the looting and destruction of a store that evening.
Shooting continued all night. Monday saw a steady stream of people moving from ransacked Glenwood malls back to the settlement, carrying looted goods. That night shooting was accompanied by loud music and feasting, well past curfew.
While the late deployment of soldiers should assist in clearing highways and guarding infrastructure, only the arrests of key instigators may stop an escalation of destabilisation. Economic recovery will take years and the poor and unemployed will suffer worst. These outrageous acts have fuelled racial polarisation, and reconciliation is a priority.
So, too, is widespread consultation and action to fix the broken political system to build real democracy and development, and empower the voices of the poor and marginalised to participate fully in it.
* Mary de Haas is an honorary research fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Law, and a member of the Navi Pillay Research Group focusing on justice and human rights.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.