The Pan Africa Mall in Alexandra, Johannesburg was a scene of looting as thousands of Alexandra residents went on a rampage looting grocery shops, bottle stores and furniture shops. Picture: Thulani Mbele
The Pan Africa Mall in Alexandra, Johannesburg was a scene of looting as thousands of Alexandra residents went on a rampage looting grocery shops, bottle stores and furniture shops. Picture: Thulani Mbele

At least six people dead, 489 arrested, a rand that tumbled 2.35% against the dollar within a few hours, and damage running into the billions of rand. 

Ostensibly, this looting was carried out in the name of former president Jacob Zuma, but the truth is, it was really just opportunistic mobs stepping into the vacuum created by the invisibility of law and order, and a weak government.

It was hard not to be struck by the brazenness of it all: the fact that the looters were entirely unconcerned by the rolling TV cameras recording their criminality speaks to the disturbing impotence of our law enforcement authorities. The police were too outnumbered, too late, and too toothless to restore law and order.

Into this toxic turmoil last night stepped President Cyril Ramaphosa. Much was expected of him: a rapid, decisive and unifying response at the least. 

But instead, he came across as detached, too stoic and impassive in the face of a deeply grave threat to his government’s legitimacy. As images of looters carrying out microwave ovens and entire refrigerators from looted fast food outlets simultaneously filled our screens, Ramaphosa spoke of how “these disruptions will cost lives by cutting off supply chains that sustain our food and health production systems.”

As if the looters who were piling flat-screen TVs into their cars would have paused, chastened and ashamed by their impact on supply chain economics. 

Ramaphosa was sombre and displayed gravitas, but there were too many moments when he sounded like the keynote speaker at a flower garden fundraiser at the local Rotary Club. 

Then again, how do you respond to looting as the president of a party that has become entirely synonymous with the practice, as even funds meant for Covid-19 were filched by many of his top partly officials. That the looting was happening, notionally in defence of a narcissistic former president, Jacob Zuma, who had himself opened the gates for the country to be looted blind was an irony lost on nobody.

Still, Ramaphosa’s response was too prevaricating on a turbulent day where the prevailing epiphany was that the government was decidedly not in control. Infrastructure was toppled, marauding gangs laid siege to clinics and invaded homes, trucks lay burnt out, and family stores built over decades were laid waste in hours, entirely unimpeded by the intervention of police.

If Ramaphosa was brittle, he was at least present; the tough-talking police minister Bheki Cele had entirely vanished when the going got tough. Without the spectre of alcohol to beat up on, Cele became invisible on the day he was needed most.

The truth is, Cele had already failed: he’d failed to anticipate this, and failed to intervene strategically to quell it early. 

And this should have been foreseen. Xenophobic shop invasions on June 16 in Soweto and last November in Durban provided the state with a warning. A few weeks ago, the Harrismith community torched a truck after government ignored their protests that had gone on for weeks.

There is a clear pattern of failed government service delivery that stretches from Cape Town to Mpumalanga and people are angry, hungry and desperate. And the criminals who fanned this flame are now entirely unintimidated by the authorities too.

This anarchy, then, was never about Zuma, even if his imprisonment was the convenient catalyst. The looting, riots and even the xenophobic and tribal hue with which they are tinged, are rooted in joblessness, desperation and hopelessness. Too many people, tired of a failing government, have nothing left to lose. And those who lost jobs in the lockdown see it as government-sanctioned theft of what little they have left.

The fact that it was the self-serving kleptocracy of Zuma that brought it to this, that worsened this inequality, is an irony — but one of academic concern at this point. Many of the looters this week couldn’t care less about Zuma; he simply opened the door to chaos — again.

Last night, Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of soldiers to quell the violence and anarchy. Let’s hope it’s not too late. 

The question is, will the military hammer be able to pound the cork back into the bottle, now that the protests have outgrown Zuma, Ramaphosa or political agendas? And how much more of the country will be razed, and blood spilt, before that happens?

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