Thursday, July 22, 2021

The week that was

Michael - Thursday

Last week South Africa was plunged into turmoil that could have been an existential threat to democratic South Africa. The damage to property and the economy has been estimated to be as high as two billion dollars, hundreds of shopping centres (and smaller shops) were looted and subsequently destroyed, roads were blocked and infrastructure damaged. This hit us as the third wave of delta-driven covid was peaking and the economy was already reeling from the new lockdown and the resulting blow to the tourist and hospitality sectors. In two provinces many vaccination centres were forced to close. Apart from anything else the looting will be a super-spreader event. At least many people wore masks – probably more to stop themselves being identified than to stop the spread of the virus!

Looted shops burning

The looting of shops and robbing of automatic bank machines was mainly in the historically black areas of the country. As usual, it was the poor who suffered the most and continue to suffer. Major roads were blocked by burning tires – later burning trucks – and communications infrastructure was attacked and damaged. The Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provinces, which experienced almost all of the damage, suffered shortages of goods largely trucked from the coastal ports in KZN. Fuel refineries ran out of raw materials and a shortage of petrol and diesel resulted. Dairy farmers flushed milk down the drain as there was no way of getting it to the consumers.

Now that calm has been restored, supplies are moving again, and we’re picking up the pieces, the question everyone is asking is why this happened. Like everything in South Africa the question is complex, and I don’t pretend to know the answers. But here are some of the issues.


Ramaphosa (left) and Zuma (right)
Friends no more

The previous president has been playing a variety of games to avoid giving testimony to the commission investigating state capture during his kleptomaniacal term. After multiple adjournments, delays, and warnings, he was finally told that he’d be arrested for contempt of court unless he gave himself up by midnight on Wednesday two weeks ago. After much ranting about politically motivated persecution and dire warnings, he did so at 11:30pm.

Despite his lifestyle and the looting of state coffers he and his cronies carried out, he is still a loved and respected leader in some circles. He was on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, so his struggle credentials are as good as it gets. He is a Zulu leader, and the Zulus have a proud and warlike history and are the majority tribal group in KZN. Also, there is a faction in the ruling ANC that misses the rich pickings of the Zuma era and fears their own accountings.

Undoubtedly, Zuma’s arrest was the spark. But it wasn’t the cause.


The economy here has picked up since the first covid whammy, but it had been knocked from a low base with official unemployment at more than a third of the workforce. Youth unemployment is over 70%. The new lockdown hit the winter school break (the previous one coincided with the longer summer holiday season) and knocked the stuffing out of what was left of the hospitality industry. International tourism has been essentially dead for eighteen months.

Smaller shops suffered as badly as the big chains in the looting, with everything stolen and often the infrastructure destroyed. Many were run by women making a meagre living to support their families. The big chains will claim on insurance, write off a few million, and start reconstruction. The small businesses are wiped out with no hope of recovery except uncertain government support.

One woman leaving a grocery store with a big bag of cornmeal and a large sack of oranges told a reporter, “I’m not a bad person. I just need this food for my children.” Yes, there were reporters there interviewing looters. Where were the police?


Initially the police reaction, especially in KZN, was tentative to say the least. There was some muttering about not escalating a bad situation. The president spoke of concern for people’s feelings, of the hurt and anger of their erstwhile hero's arrest. Well, the bad situation escalated pretty quickly without any help. I saw live TV coverage of a shopping mall being cleaned out. The looters did have a problem. It wasn’t the police, it was the huge traffic jam that ran back for miles as people tried to reach the mall for their share, simply parking in the highway outside, grabbing what they could carry, and then returning and driving off so that someone else could take their place.


Talk about greed!

Yes, of course. Get someone else to open the can, then help yourself to much of the contents. Opportunistic thieves were clearly a big factor.


The government is now adamant that the looting and rioting was orchestrated. Ostensibly to protest the arrest of Zuma, it was part of a multifaceted plot to overthrow the democratic order in South Africa and to replace it by a group not yet identified but possibly including part of the old Zuma gang.

I’m always suspicious of conspiracy theories – apart from anything else, they provide an easy way for leaders to direct blame at shadowy groups of villains and away from their own failings. George Orwell wrote about this stuff in his novel 1984. His totalitarian regime had a single person to hate, which was even better. Even if he didn’t exist. Particularly if he didn’t exist!

However, there are some issues that are suspicious. Why attack cell phone towers? Nothing to loot there and hardly an obvious way to express dissent. Closing the N3, the main artery between the major population centres of Gauteng and the ports of Durban and KZN, makes some sense in the context of protesting about the arrest. However, people were seen arriving to loot in busloads. In buses? Who ever heard of looters being “bussed to work”? Certainly, social media was used to advertise events and protest actions, all ostensibly protesting about the Zuma incarceration, but all leading to looting and infrastructure damage.

The government announced that twelve men were behind the orchestrated uprising. (The Gang of Twelve sounds familiar.) One was immediately arrested, but released shortly afterwards. Hmm. Gang of Eleven doesn’t have quite the same ring.


People come together to protect what's theirs

I imagine that there is something in all these factors. But as so often in South Africa, there was a silver lining that may be the most important part. People rallied round, not only to help clean up the looted businesses, but to protect their own infrastructure from the looters. People of all races, tribal groups, walks of life, worked through the police forums to be guards and lookouts and simply be there for each other. Even the minibus taxi associations, not always known for their respect for the rule of law, made it clear that they would play their part and did so convincingly.

As a black young leader in the border town of Volksrust put it, “This is ours here. We won’t let them destroy what we have.” He was referring to the town’s small shopping centre. No one touched the shops and they continued to operate normally.

Somehow, we always get it back together and carry on.



  1. Frightening to see the destruction abd looting... Distressing to realise the devastation to the most vulnerable... Infuriating that those who share responsibility shunt blame...

    1. Yes, indeed. And it all started because a man who spent the money that should have been used for social development and infrastructure spread it around his cronies!

  2. Oh Michael, I have been thinking about you with all that has been happening. So heartbreaking. Thank you so much for your analysis. Busloads of rioters? Excuse me, but are the people who organized a thing like this so naïve as to think no one would notice. Somebody actually thought sending in buses would fail to create suspicion?.

    Here in my hemisphere, we have certainly had our share of looting in the past year and a half, some of which appears to have been an attempt to overthrow the government. Here’s the most pessimistic, cynical thing you will ever hear me say: Maybe the coronavirus is right. They are just too many people in the world. My problem with this is that, with are very, very few exceptions, it’s killing the wrong people.

    After that outburst, I think Stan will call me up to find out what has caused this terrible change in me. I will plead temporary insanity.

    1. When I first started writing this last week, I was all doom and gloom and I said to myself what light would Patricia find in this? And that's when the reports started coming in of people rallying round and coming together across all divides to protect their infrastructure and each other. And I thought, you see? She's right.

  3. What a devastating event.There's usually a collection of factors in these events that grows slowly and then explodes with some trigger.

  4. Absolutely. Without those factors, the most that would happen would be a few demonstrations to make the points. Then life would have gone on...

  5. A powerful description of a frightening situation, Michael. Destruction of cellphone towers strikes me as reminiscent coup d'etat planing to cut off communications...and busloads of demonstrators add to that suspicion. It almost sounds like what January 6th in WDC was hoped to be by many. As for Sis's temporary insanity, it runs proudly in the family.

  6. Shows the crying need for jobs at livable wages, with benefits. People do not loot if they have what they need.