OPINION - There are many stories that need to be told about the days and nights of July 2021, when anarchy was let loose in parts of South Africa. But what stands out is the courage of ordinary people who stood side by side with their neighbours against a mob of looters.
Most were ill-equipped and untrained in self-defence. They were of different ages, different religions and even different races. But they were prepared to put their lives on the line to protect their loved ones and their property.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Sunday night, he had an opportunity to announce decisive action. He didn’t, leaving it to God to “protect her people”. And so, citizens were left to the mercy of criminals.
The law enforcement agencies were hopelessly ill prepared. Our intelligence agencies failed to notify us of what was coming. Our police lacked adequate manpower, training and resources. The result was death and destruction running into billions of rands.
When the police were unable to control the situation, they called upon private security companies to provide them with back up. When more manpower was needed, it was ordinary folk who held the line.
Whenever people gather in groups there is a heightened risk of mob mentality. When they’re carrying weapons and fearful, the situation can quickly get out of hand. Sadly, a few went beyond protecting their communities and became aggressors. Their actions must be condemned as strongly as the actions of the looters. But, by and largely, most people were only interested in protecting their families and homes.
By the time Ramaphosa announced the army would be deployed, communities from around KwaZulu-Natal had formed human shields against the looters.
It is unlikely their role will ever be formally acknowledged. But we are grateful for all they did. Had it not been for these brave souls, the looting, destruction and loss of life would have been more widespread.
In the coming days we will have to rebuild our lives. It won’t be easy, because it is not just a question of cleaning up the debris that has been left behind.
The events of July 11 opened old wounds in society and also created a few new ones. Most tragically it has polarised communities and heightened racial tension. It is a scar on our young democracy.
Next week our country will commemorate Mandela’s birth anniversary and we must use this occasion to start a process of healing. We need to draw from Mandela’s magnanimity. If we don’t, those who started this nonsense would have won.