A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, in Pietermaritzburg following protests. Picture: SIBONELO ZUNGU/VIA REUTERS
A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, in Pietermaritzburg following protests. Picture: SIBONELO ZUNGU/VIA REUTERS

Last week’s orgy of senseless violence and destruction in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal was, ostensibly, an expression of disapproval of the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of the Constitutional Court.

If so this is despicable, but SA is not the only country that has witnessed personality driven politics playing out in the national arena as violence and the destruction of property. In January, supporters of former US president Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol, and in the ensuing melee there were five fatalities and about 140 people were injured. This in one of the world’s oldest and most entrenched democracies.  

As last week progressed in SA, the protests spiralled into the torching and ransacking of schools, shops, hospitals and other critical infrastructure. Perhaps the looters had sensed either a reluctance or paralysis on the part of the security forces, and became emboldened in their destructive actions. Criminals had a field day as they went about stealing whatever they could lay their hands on. ATMs became prime targets.

Images of the violence and destruction were broadcast across SA and the world. One particularly disturbing feature of the mayhem was the number of children participating in the burning and looting. This is cause for concern as such behaviour is becoming normalised in SA. In 1990, eminent scholars at Wits University, professors William McKendrick and Wilma Hoffmann, aptly observed in their book, People and Violence in South Africa that: “The nation has been caught up in a destructive pattern of violence, both repressive and revolutionary, and in the process many South Africans have come to accept violence as an ordinary, normal, and legitimate solution to conflict.”

It was perplexing to me that during the carnage and afterwards several analysts and members of the public suggested people went on looting and arson sprees because “they were hungry”. Another narrative was that the state “did not care” about the plight of its citizens. Both of these accounts are misleading. As we witnessed on our television sets, a good number of looters  arrived at the hotpots in fancy cars to ferry their booty and were certainly not hungry. Those who torched trucks, stole from ATMs, burned schools and vandalised hospitals were not hungry either.

A culture of violence is gaining momentum in SA, driven by the senseless destruction of anything that is meant to make the lives of the citizens better. This is extremely worrying. These riots remind me of the proverbial example of people poisoning their wells when they have grievances, only to realise what they have done when they become thirsty.

The right to protest is enshrined in the constitution, and it is true that there is much to protest about; we all agree that SA has high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality, but it makes no sense for citizens to destroy their communities and amenities whenever they get frustrated.

There have been a number of worrying incidents in recent years:

  • In 2012, in the John Taolo Gaetsewe district of the Northern Cape, thousands of children couldn’t attend school for several months because their parents and communities had burned a school and forced the closure of other schools during protest action.
  • In 2016, more than 30 schools were burned and vandalised in Vuwani in the Vhembe district of Limpopo because communities did not want to be moved from the Makhado local municipality. The people of Malamulele, who were embroiled in this battle, burned schools as a way of “airing their grievances”.
  • In May 2020, during the first national lockdown, basic education minister Angie Motshekga reported that 1,577 schools had been vandalised, 463 in KwaZulu-Natal and 336 in Gauteng.  

This snapshot clearly shows that citizens were burning schools not because they “were hungry”. Also, despite the challenges the country faces, it is not true that the state has neglected its citizens. SA has one of the most expansive social assistance programmes in the world, where issues of hunger, destitution and poverty are addressed on a monthly basis. The Estimate of  National Expenditure for 2021/22 for social development’s social assistance budget is R196bn. Children, older people, people with disabilities, orphans and other vulnerable citizens are looked after by the state.

There are more than 18-million citizens on this programme and this does not include the “social wage” encompassing school feeding schemes and subsidised electricity, water and sanitation. There is now also a bursary scheme for university students from lower middle-class families or the so-called missing middle. Citizens still receive free houses, even if their quality is below par, and some people have been on waiting lists for decades. For perspective, the population of Zimbabwe is about 16-million, Zambia’s is close to 19-million and Malawi’s 20-million.

During the lockdowns the state rolled out extensive social relief and an economic support package of R500bn, amounting to about 10% of the country’s GDP. A special Covid-19 “Social Relief of Distress Grant” of R350 a month was paid to citizens who were unemployed and did not receive any other form of social grant. Other measures were also taken, such as disbursements from the Unemployment Insurance Fund and the distribution of 250,000 food parcels.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his (her) own weight, this is a frightening prospect.”

The state cannot do everything; it is time for the citizens to do their bit by not destroying their communities. Thus, I subscribe to the notion of “Courageous Conversations”, as advanced by the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Dr Thabo Makgoba. The country needs such courageous conversations to move forward from this sordid episode.

• Noyoo is director of the Zola Skweyiya Africa Social Policy Innovation at the University of Cape Town.

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