Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS
Police minister Bheki Cele. Picture: GCIS

Scenes of angry mobs destroying property and clashing with police in KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend should not have come as a surprise.

Anyone who watched the pronouncements by former president Jacob Zuma’s supporters on social media in the wake of the Constitutional Court’s decision to jail him for defying a court order should have known what was coming.

It’s clear that the police were not looking, or didn’t care. The question is whether this was due to incompetence, complacency or a failure to understand their role. After all, there’s been no more enthusiastic enforcer of law and order than Bheki Cele since the outbreak of Covid-19 saw the enactment of wide-ranging restrictions on citizens’ rights of movement.

If you dared go jogging when you weren’t allowed to, the police were there. It was the same if you had a film shoot at a beach in Cape Town late in 2020. And here you had people on social media and on television screens threatening violence against the republic and its institutions.

It would have been a reasonable expectation that the National Joint Operational Intelligence Structure, a mix of the police, the army and crime intelligence co-ordinating security and law enforcement operations across the country, would take proactive measures to prevent and contain any waves of violent unrest.

It’s easy to blame Khehla Sitole, the police chief, or his political master, Cele, but President Cyril Ramaphosa showed again how slow he can be to read the national mood. The violence wasn’t even deemed worthy of a mention in his Monday newsletter, having got a brief mention during his Covid-19 update on Sunday. He would not brief the nation specifically on the violence until Monday night, after a day of mayhem that saw banks close branches, people not getting their Covid-19 vaccines and the rand posting its worst decline in six months.

Millions across the world watched footage of people smashing windows, setting shopping malls alight and making off with trolley loads of merchandise. There were even reports of people being attacked in their own homes.

It was the day the tough-talking Cele showed he was unsuited to the responsibility to protect property, the innocent and restore order. In his newsletter, Ramaphosa stuck to a pre-written script about the patience needed to succeed in starting a business. In the meantime, small business owners, already being ravaged by the lockdown, were watching their property go up in flames.

Now and again television footage showed one or two lone police officers showing up after shops had been wrecked. They were outnumbered, running out of rubber bullets and handcuffs.

This will rightly start a debate about the fitness of SA’s police service after years of punishing budget cuts. And there’s more to come. The medium-term budget policy framework sees spending on policing dropping an average 0.2% per year through to 2023/2024, while SA’s decrepit military faces cuts of 3.7%.

Business Day has recently run an entire series on the army and how unsuited it is to protect the country. And yet at the first sign of trouble, the cry is to “send the troops”. Yes, we can make generalised cries about austerity being to blame, but this would be misleading. This is about political choices. The government has always managed to find money for its pet projects, such as SAA.

If anything should instil a sense of urgency to have a better resourced police force, as promised in Ramaphosa’s 2019 state of the nation address, it is the violent scenes we have witnessed in the past few days.

The situation has been made more flammable by an economy that was in permanent crisis even before Covid-19 hit, which has now left more than three-quarters of young people unemployed.

The criminal acts of looting will probably taper off, but SA has been warned. The structural factors that create grounds for discontent aren’t going to disappear any time soon. In the meantime, the absence of a capable police force with strong leadership and adequate resources is a clear and present danger today.

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