Police Minister Bheki Cele. Picture: Freddy Mavunda/Business Day
Police Minister Bheki Cele. Picture: Freddy Mavunda/Business Day

Even as the tally mounted — 72 dead, more than 1,200 arrests and damage running into billions of rands — President Cyril Ramaphosa missed a number of opportunities to inspire confidence in his ability to quell the raging unrest.

It’s a failure, of speed and certitude, that may have irreparably damaged investment sentiment, and wiped out the progress in sandbagging an economy already drowning under Covid.

The implications should concern everyone. The cost to the retail sector of the looting of over 800 stories is estimated at over R5bn. And the looting of distribution centres means the supply of medical supplies and food is anything but certain.

Ramaphosa seemed out of ideas. On Monday, he said: "This is not who we are as South Africans … [these] are opportunistic acts of criminality."

He added: "We will take action to protect every person in this country against the threat of violence, intimidation, threats and looting."

But even as Ramaphosa announced the deployment of the SA National Defence Force, there should already have been boots on the ground. Instead, as he spoke, the nation watched aghast as a blood bank was looted before our eyes, the marauders entirely unconcerned by the fact that they were being filmed.

This contrast amplified one of the state’s worst characteristics: its inability to do anything when speed matters. It was something we saw with the vaccines, which led to the new lockdowns, and we saw it again this week. It has now emerged that as the country burned, as business owners fought without support, the ANC’s national executive was "discussing" the unrest — for two days.

And it spoke volumes about Ramaphosa’s authority that, despite his assurances on Monday night, the looters carried on the next morning, as if nothing had happened, as if no ultimatum had been issued by the country’s leader.

By Tuesday afternoon, the defence force presence was scant — and a Makro store in Pietermaritzburg was emptird by hundreds of looters loading their vehicles, with not a soldier or policeman in sight. By failing to act in time, the police and army had effectively made a mockery of Ramaphosa’s vow the previous night.

But then, his security cluster ministers — police minister Bheki Cele, state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo and defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula — are patently out of their depth. The three, all compromised remnants of the Zuma faction, have no business being anywhere close to where it matters in a country feeling unsafe. Their continued presence in key portfolios may, in the end, be the single biggest mistake of Ramaphosa’s first term.

Cele — who has in recent months gleefully boasted about arresting beachgoers, surfers and those carrying alcohol — barely looked up as he mumbled through a speech on police operations to quell the violence. He rambled on about "sanitising your hands", even as looters continued to obliterate strip malls, leaving communities without grocery stores, butcheries, pharmacies or social grant pay points. That Cele hasn’t already resigned for his failure to anticipate this disaster can only be a tribute to his self-delusion.

Mapisa-Nqakula and Dlodlo displayed an equally tragic lack of awareness of the situation.

Rather than arresting criminals for the looting, and reassuring business owners that they’ll be protected, our political leaders are prevaricating, at a time when the one vital requirement of a proper response is speed.

But then it’s the same bungling that we saw when it came to ordering Covid vaccines — and it cost lives and jobs that time, too.

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