In the Netflix documentary that is bound to be made sometime in the future on what is South Africa’s most cataclysmic post-apartheid political event, the bizarre, leisurely nature of many of the looting sprees will bemuse and bewilder non-South African viewers.

Looters ambled into the malls, were dropped off by cars and bakkies, packed and repacked their shopping bags, wheelbarrows and trolleys, waited for a lift home, gave interviews to reporters, smiled, laughed, strolled round the occasional policeman watching from the periphery.

Those who hadn’t made it to the initial spree turned up later in the day to glean, even as pathetically armed and outnumbered police stood guard over the abandoned goods piled high on the sides of the streets. Some wore masks, many didn’t.

As the camera pans out to reveal raging fires, dead bodies and the extent of the devastation and chaos of the past week, the narrator would have to explain that this was not simply Black Friday gone feral during a pandemic. This was far more than righteous, political protests by the poor and downtrodden across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that spontaneously combusted into opportunism.

Government is saying it was orchestrated, and is investigating. Anonymous sources tell media there are Zuma loyalist masterminds in the background, and produce WhatsApp messages as evidence of planning and coordination. 

It makes sense – but we will need to exercise extreme scepticism in coming weeks as we steer our way through official government statements, leaks and anonymous sources. There are two sides playing hardball now.

In my mind’s eye I see a bunker beneath the Nkandla tearoom, a large map spread across a table pinpointing main supply routes, reservoirs, chemical factories, malls and business nodes. Shadowy figures around the table, their gold watches glinting. Serried ranks of young beauties click out messages on Twitter, TikTok, WhatsApp and Facebook.

Maybe it was a meme.

Incitement to insurrection

There’s no doubt, however, that there was incitement to insurrection on social media under #FreeZuma, and the unrest followed the former president’s imprisonment and threats of violence from his acolytes.

I’m most curious, though, as to why this incitement was so effective in mobilising so many mobs in so many places? Are the sinister forces behind all this simply brilliant at this sort of thing? If so, I am very scared. Do they have an endless supply of dedicated followers they can summon at the drop of a text message, over and over again? Terrifying thought.

A buffet of excuses and reasons currently circulate as to why so many seemingly ordinary people morphed into minions wreaking destruction. You can add and combine as you see fit from this non-exclusive list: the legacy of apartheid; poverty; inequality; incredibly high unemployment; tribalism; the hardships caused by never-ending lockdowns and prohibitions; resentment bred by the ruling alliance’s incessant narrative of the evils of capitalism and whiteness; decades-old rhetoric justifying theft; evidence that greed gets rewarded; a belief that Jacob Zuma has been unjustly incarcerated; gullibility; stupidity; and good old FOMO.

The bread queues, the fights to find food, medicine, nappies, petrol and the other essentials of life have begun both for those who looted and those who did not – including the wealthy.

A line in the newly appointed Zulu king’s scripted plea to end the violence evoked the long-term horror of it. ‘My father’s people are committing suicide,’ Misuzulu kaZwelithini said.

That’s a very narrow vision, however. The whole economy is suffering collateral damage because of this millenarian-like madness.

Still, I’m a bit of an anthro-optimist.

Dysfunctional ‘family’

As we clean up and douse the fires, batten down the hatches and watch the hunt for instigators, we should consider what we can do to rid ourselves of the dysfunctional ‘family’ that has brought us here.

Not just the sprawling clan and entourage in Nkandla but the whole damn lot of them with their ‘family’ meetings and their pathetic governance, their corruption, their racist policies, and the failure of their policies and promises of a better life.

Cyril Ramaphosa failed to prepare for this unrest despite the warnings back in 2008 and only the week before. When it came, he failed to act decisively and quickly. Maybe he was let down or deliberately betrayed by his security cluster, but certainly he and that cluster – including ‘domestic’ intelligence (haha) – are guilty of failing to direct, manage and maintain a police service and defence force we could depend on to protect us and the economy and be there when we needed them most.

Maybe the penny has finally dropped for many people (except perhaps for Max du Preez) that the president we have is not the real leader we need now, his New Dawn is a chimera, and there are no suitable leaders in the African National Congress.

The ‘glorious’ movement has betrayed everyone by involving us all in its internal power tussle and brought us to the edge of the maelstrom.

The overwhelming majority of South Africans are not members of this party (membership numbers are notoriously unreliable, as Anthony Butler has noted, but Wikipedia currently quotes a source from 2015 for its figures of 769 000 members). We should be livid at being used and abused like this.

This national experiment (cue Eusebius McKaiser et al outrage) to prove our exceptionalism among African countries with a liberation movement government has gone horribly wrong and we must act to save ourselves.

Caught in the middle

Here’s what sustains me right now as I watch the horrific images and hear the anguish in the voices of small shop owners, business people, god-fearing and law-abiding residents caught in the middle.

  • Taxi drivers, specifically those in SANTACO, are suddenly, thanks no doubt to some healthy self-interest, earning our admiration for their role in defying the violence and criminality rather than for their devilish, creative driving skills.
  • Diverse, rag-tag and hastily assembled lines of citizen volunteers and private security in many instances proved more organized and more effective in reassuring and protecting us than our own police service and defence force. Hopefully they’ll soon be relieved and made unnecessary by sufficient official boots on the ground.
  • The multiracial nature of that defensive line provides yet more proof of the IRR’s assertion that racism is not the principal problem we face.
  • A real-life illustration of exactly what can transpire when people blatantly appropriate the property of others – what that Expropriation without Compensation legislation opens the door to – has rolled across our screens and taken place in our own streets over several days.
  • The government’s plan to effectively disarm civilians, which was drifting towards us on the back of suspect research, was shot out of the water by the obvious need to deter a mob on attack, when security forces (the Police Minister and Commissioner included) were nowhere to be seen.
  • We have big hearts.

So where to from here? The ‘Soweto’ final question so beloved of interviewers.

Dream on, you cry

Ramaphosa, using this event as justification, could find the courage to save himself, his party and his reputation with a thorough clean-up of his cabinet and an about-turn on disastrous economic policies and the obsession with BEE. Maybe even a government of national unity. Dream on, you cry – but a woman has need of dreams in these bleak times.

This may also be the trigger needed for those who disdained ‘involvement’ in politics, refrained from voting, couldn’t be bothered to register to vote, or voted for the corrupt ANC, to move the governing party into the opposition benches.

As Marius Roodt suggestedit is possible we could soon all make a difference to our deteriorating cities, towns and services by voting against the ANC in the coming municipal elections. That would give us a good run at voting them out in the national elections and ultimately saving our country from ruin.

So perhaps there’ll be a surprising, upbeat conclusion in my imagined documentary on this historic point in our history. 

P.S. I haven’t forgotten it’s the anniversary of your birth, Nelson Mandela. You’re proving to have been the best of the bunch so far. My heart soared when the racist regime, pre-1994, ended. But I didn’t vote for your party then or subsequently and I don’t think I’ll be doing so any time soon. Sorry.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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