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SANDF members patrol in Alexandra township following a looting spree. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
SANDF members patrol in Alexandra township following a looting spree. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

Four days after the first trucks were set alight in the wake of Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court – the first flames of a conflagration that soon engulfed large parts of the country – the following WhatsApp message dropped on my neighbourhood group: “You guys in your road you also need to talk. Form a plan to protect your street. Where you [are] going to keep [the] injured, how many have firearms how much ammo they have, put your medical kits together, food. Who has nursing experience, how you going to defend your street etc etc.”

You can’t really blame the gun-packing, ammo-counting cowboys for wanting to be boy-scout prepared. The reports and visuals coming out of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng have been deeply unsettling. But that fear – and the knee-jerk desire to retreat into armed enclaves – is indicative of a much more disturbing phenomenon: of a state that has lost its purchase.

One of the defining characteristics of the modern state is its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. At its heart, society is really is just one big protection racket: we swear fealty to the state – we pay our taxes and obey the laws – and, in return, it looks after us. Or that’s how it’s supposed to work.

In SA, however, that capacity has been on the wane for years. And nowhere has that been more apparent than in the events of the past week.

And so alternative centres of power have filled the void: private security firms, community policing forums – and, more concerningly, vigilantes, armed militias and even the taxi industry (in Vosloorus, taxi drivers reportedly fired live rounds at looters this week while the police looked on; a 14-year-old boy was killed).

There’s an additional dimension in a country such as SA, where history has ordained that the cleavages of class, race and place are largely overlaid: communal laagering and attendant vigilantism have the potential to inflame racial tensions.

Dress rehearsals for impunity

If the neighbourhood groups were prematurely counting their live rounds, SA’s security forces were caught flat-footed. Or, as defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula so eloquently told parliament on Wednesday: “We were nearly caught with our ... I don’t want to say, ‘pants down’, but I think this is what happened.”

Only, “pants down” suggests the security forces were caught by surprise. Social commentators have been warning for years of the tinderbox that is SA: the inherent danger that lies in stratospheric (youth) unemployment and an almost criminal level of poverty and inequality.

But that’s not the spark – it’s a grievance that can be easily, and cynically, exploited. As Wits University’s David Everatt writes for The Conversation Africa: “Poor and hungry people exist and the state should be ashamed. But hungry people do not become violent looters on behalf of better-known looters who are in jail.”

At the same time, we’ve witnessed the dry-run of impunity for years: the violent attacks on foreign shop-owners that are so often written off as “opportunistic criminality”, with no-one brought to book. Faceless mob violence, with no-one held to account.

The Mkhonto weSizwe (MK) Military Veterans Association – an ostensibly disbanded body loyal to Zuma – has for years protested the employment of foreign truckers, who have themselves increasingly become victims of arson. 

Yet, as Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffejee points out in this rather excellent examination of the organised origins of the current violence, “police have promised to clamp down, but have not substantially dealt with the killings of more than 200 truckers since 2018”. (This piece, by Jane Duncan, is also well worth the read.)

You’d imagine, at the very least, that the intelligence services would have some kind of a handle on groups and individuals that have publicly and actively fomented violence.

You’d think, with Zuma on the cusp of a prison sentence, that the security forces would have anticipated some kind of pushback. It’s not as though they didn’t have years to prepare. Surely they’d want to keep tabs on the former security operatives among his acolytes?

You’d presume that with the state-capture house of cards finally falling in on itself, the intelligence services would have expected some kind of a last-gasp reach for power.

But no. Instead, with hindsight, deputy state security minister Zizi Kodwa tells News24 that this “well-orchestrated economic sabotage” has been carried out by people “who know the know-how of how MK operated, and they have organised in that way”.

Our esteemed defence minister tells parliament that the government was caught unawares by the looting and was basically watching it unfold on social media. And that it was a “learning curve” and “an eye-opener” to discover that the police should probably have good comms with the private security sector.

So, no. Pants down.

New leaders, please

Nobody likes to be the fall guy, so it’s perhaps understandable that state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo and police minister Bheki Cele were at pains earlier this week to point out that they hadn’t failed their jobs.

While patting themselves on the back for the saves they made after the match had been lit, they told us that “the country could have seen much worse violence” if it weren’t for their interventions.

By way of example, said Cele, if they hadn’t responded swiftly, the burning of trucks on the N3 would have been much worse.

Me, I’d call 35 trucks in a weekend pretty bad to begin with.

The smug, self-congratulatory mien of our politicians is annoying at the best of times, but it’s doubly offensive right now. Especially as they’re being paraded through affected areas — sent to “inspect the damage” — like ghetto tourists.

Enough of the photo-ops. I’d like to see them getting on with the job of figuring out how to reinstate the social relief of distress grant, or how to get Sassa pay-points up and running again. I’d like to know they’re beavering away at a plan to ensure food security as hunger looms. You know, governing.

Instead, we have performative governance: rule by social media. Sound bites and video clips – and KZN premier Sihle Zikalala beating a young looter with his bare hands. 

And such pearls of wisdom as this, from our ever-eloquent luminary Mbaks: “Those who are burning the stores are not fighting for the president. They are just everywhere with their chicken audacities in the dark.”

If ever there were time for a reshuffle, it is now. The security portfolios (and health ministry) would seem to be a good place to start ...

De Villiers is the features editor of the FM

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