South Africa has long been burning; this week we just saw the flames

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Burning factory in Sea Cow Lake area on July 12 in Durban.Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart
Burning factory in Sea Cow Lake area on July 12 in Durban.Photo: Gallo Images/Darren Stewart

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As fridges were being hurled on to bakkies, coffins heaved out of funeral parlours and flames billowed across the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal skylines, many were wondering, “Could all this destruction truly be in the name of #FreeJacobZuma”, now a reluctant inmate at the Estcourt Correctional Centre?

Zuma’s lawyer, Advocate Dali Mpofu, had forewarned that chucking the former president in jail would deteriorate into a Marikana-esque bloodbath we’d ostensibly live to regret. Those within earshot of Zuma’s minute-to-midnight incarceration claim the man himself had said he did not want such blood on his conscience.

So, when barely a few days after his detention tyres began burning and anarchy ensued, common logic seemed to nod agreeably that pockets of the population indeed wanted Zuma out and about calling for Umshini wami, as is his wont.

READ: Durban looting aftermath: 45 000 businesses affected, R16 billion in lost stock and damaged infrastructure

Some will say that these dissenters were suddenly craving uBaba’s lacklustre diatribes on radical economic transformation; that they wanted him, like his apartheid predecessors, to go gently into his twilight years surrounded by serenity and grandkids rather than a doorstop of corruption counts. Much to one’s surprise, the chattering classes seemed to take a dim view of the proferred easy answers such as “ethnic mobilisation” or that this was simply a case to “free Jacob Zuma”.

They would have us mulling over an alternative theory: here is a man whose anointed candidate at the ANC elective conference in 2017 was shunned even by his closest allies; who himself was unceremoniously dumped as South Africa’s president on Valentine’s Day just months later; is dogged by pending charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering; and is haunted by a legacy of “state capture” and “nine wasted years”, which brings us to a simple conclusion: he has for a while been eating locusts and wild honey in the political wilderness and very few sane people really care whether or not he’s been reduced to a prison number.

It was a narrative Zuma supporters, obviously hoping that the leading headline would lean more towards their preparedness to die for their leader, did not particularly want to hear.

To their chagrin, Zuma as an individual was being cut some slack and the buck was being passed on to Zuma and the ANC as a whole. And the intelligentsia, often left to rant and rave on the pages of newspapers – rants the that the ordinary South African would barely even read – found themselves mildly vindicated. The inevitable “Armageddon” these writers had so long warned about sounded like something of a novelty falling out of the mouth of Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula, yet SA Federation of Trade Unions head Zwelinzima Vavi had long said that high unemployment was a “ticking time bomb”, and this week it suddenly exploded in all our faces. Save the obvious anxieties about lawlessness and the inexorable slide towards a banana republic, in the main, there seemed to be consensus that this was something of a Malcolm X-esque “chickens coming home to roost” moment.

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After all, the ANC’s record of looting and corruption speaks for itself. It is a list so long that anybody whose name has not yet come up is either a rare aberration or is very adept at covering their tracks or it’s simply a matter of time before it does. This was the saddest part of the wanton plunder – senior ANC officials, some of whom have been implicated at one point or another in fiddling with the state piggy bank, looked into the cameras and called for the arrest of the looters. It was easy to miss the irony because these white collar looters had a modicum of respectability in the middle of a crisis where citizens mostly just wanted to wake up from the nightmare.

Unlike their barefoot counterparts on the ground, these officials weren’t bolt-cutting their way into shops, or carrying microwave ovens on their heads during their 27-year-long rampage of willy-nilly stealing.

Instead, they were this week given a platform and with it the moral high ground. These thieves of a different kind have taken bribes, found loopholes in the granting of tenders and enjoyed free stays at top hotels because somebody with money was sucking up to them.

Not so, unfortunately, for the laypeople who were but pawns in the filthier, inscrutable game of power politics. Likely conned into running rampant in the cause of a “son of the soil”, this motley rabble unquestioningly heeded the call, torching things and breaking down doors. It seemed like Mpofu’s prophesies were coming true and there were those who were scrambling to call for uBaba’s immediate release in the name of the greater good. Things seemed to go according to script until what the “faceless” puppet masters did not bank on happened. The rioters, many hungry and impoverished, likely forgot about the lofty political motivations and instead saw the meat, the bread, the new school shoes and fridges staring at them from the shelves when good old instinct of survival kicked in. This hypothetical door ajar, our notoriously crafty criminals saw amid that mayhem – and the green light from those inciting the violence – an ideal situation to ply their trade and get away with it. The puppet masters, in overlooking the deeper social disparities such as youth unemployment, poverty and inequality had played a hand that will cost the entire nation dearly.

They had also ignored a Bob Marley caution very popular in township streets: 

You can fool some of the people some times/ but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

The people are beginning to see, and this is what seeing looks like.

It is brazen; an orgy of people who don’t care about being caught on camera while they steal, nor that the police station is just around the corner. When they got wind that this or that minister was in town, they just shrugged and went on with their business. So by the time our leaders arrived, mostly on Wednesday, they were treated to a trail of destruction and could do nothing but express grief like the rest of us. On most fronts, we saw the telltale signs of a failing state. Stretched thin, law enforcement was caught flat-footed and outnumbered, with rubber bullets constantly running out. Gone were the brutal images of our boys in blue kicking citizens senseless during the first weeks of last year’s hard lockdown as they looked on like emasculated civilians while swathes were nonchalantly making off with their bounty. With a reputation for hooliganism, one never thought we’d see the day when the taxi industry would be heroes, helping a “tired” (as one industry member quipped) police service.

To the extent of how abrupt but organised the unrest unfolded, it’s clear that the country had long been burning, but this week we just saw the flames.


For the longest time, the ANC’s ineptitude, tone-deafness to the plight of the poor and general disregard for the nation’s laws has been lamented by many. Still, the warnings were ignored as the comrades continued to crassly immerse themselves in their gluttonous ways. Had it not been for the ghastly reality that these rioters would wake up the next day to empty stores, a razed economy and increased joblessness, one might say: “We told you so.” But we can’t, at least insofar as nobody wants to live in a country where the rule of law doesn’t matter. We can’t; not when we know that “radical economic transformation” is nothing but a dupe to keep the elite at the trough at the expense of those desperate people who were all week effectively looting themselves of their own tomorrow.

READ: Disbanded MKMVA backs Niehaus in his suspension appeal

So we’ll call it what it is; radical ethnic trickery. In their bid to hang on to the levers of power, its agents were prepared to let our people die needlessly. One wonders if they flinched at the sad image of the tiny frame of the 14-year-old boy who perished amid the violence. Did they even bat an eyelid, let alone get teary-eyed, at the news of the scores who died amid the chaos while the big elephants were tussling it out in their ivory towers?

One hopes never again to be subjected to these images, but the lessons should never go begging. As we saw, when people are desperate, they don’t care about breaking the law or leaping happily into a police van. Jail is not a deterrent to those who can’t put bread on the table as free men. It was wrong, it was ugly and it seemed that the peasants were fed up enough to take up their imaginary pitchforks and try to “eat the rich”.

Mayaba is a freelance writer

Firefighters try to extinguish a burning truck after it was burnt and looted during the Pro-Zuma protests in the Durban CBD on July 11. Photo: Gallo Images/Volksblad/Mlungisi Louw


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