Community members hold weapons as they stand at a road block in Phoenix Township, North Durban (GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images)

July 27, 2021   6 mins

The damaging spasm of looting in the South African province of KwaZulu Natal may be over, but the crisis is not. Many of the foundation beliefs which have tenuously held this “Rainbow” nation together for 27 years are now under intense pressure. The elephants — race, tribalism and capacity to govern — are out of the corner and tap-dancing on the tabletops.

The immediate spark for the crisis was the incarceration, on 29 June, of the disgraced former president Jacob Zuma for his refusal to give evidence to a Commission of Inquiry into the corruption which had flourished during his baleful term. It followed years of rising and unchecked insurgency in KwaZulu Natal, Zuma’s ethnic heartland, which began after he lost control of the ruling African National Congress party to the “reformist” Cyril Ramaphosa in 2017.

This is how it played in my largely white community, one in a straggling group of languid villages along the Indian Ocean known for its surfing, Natal curries, seafood and laid-back attitude to life:

As always, there were early rumours of war. Over the weekend of 10 July domestic workers and staff from the townships throughout the province called their employers to advise they would not be in on Monday. Friday night saw the torching of 25 trucks on the N3 highway between Durban and Johannesburg. Sporadic arson and looting also took place. By Sunday, the local taxi association decided to withdraw their vehicles from the streets. There is an old saying here, gleaned from serial tumult: When the taxis don’t run/get ready for the fun.

Then, on Monday, it kicked off. Within two days more than 631 premises and an equal number of liquor outlets had been looted. An estimated 340 people were dead, nearly all of them looters shot by vigilantes or crushed to death in the rush for free goods.

The modus operandi was almost always identical: initially, small groups of saboteurs entered the malls, intimidated the security personnel and broke open a few shops. Whatsapp did the rest: literally tens of thousands of otherwise quite ordinary, peaceful people poured into the malls on foot and by car and completed the looting and firing of the shops. It was structured, deliberate and hugely successful in its bid to destroy food security and scupper communication channels: it was, in short, insurrectionary.

My community’s Whatsapp groups and local news channels kept pace with the mayhem and at mid-afternoon on Monday the expected call went out for all armed citizens to gather at designated points. Our hastily appointed commander advised us that all roads had been cut off by rioters and efforts to raise support from the police, army and local ruling party civic representatives had failed. The State had gone AWOL.

Within 24 hours, a functioning operational command had been set up, barricades were erected at six access points and stickers issued to emergency workers to speed progress. A communication system operated through a mobile app with military efficiency and infrared drones surveyed the surrounding bushland, their operators trying to separate human forms from bushbuck. Pickets guarded mobile phone towers, water points, electrical substations and schools. All of this had been cobbled together in hours by local neighbourhood watch groups, policing forums, private security and businesses.

By the third day, as food, fuel, cash and medicines ran out, armed convoys went out to collect supplies which were rationed and distributed. Some of the wealthiest began helicoptering out to more peaceful havens. And then assistance arrived from the most unlikely quarter: the taxi industry.

This extraordinary sector is alternatively loved and hated by the broader public. Its drivers are dangerous, the bosses dodge taxes and the business is in endlessly violent contest for routes (in the same week KwaZulu Natal burnt, taxi bosses in the Western Cape were continuing a conflict which had already seen 80 dead).

In short, they are tough guys. So when on Wednesday they called a halt to the mayhem, it had the force of a brigade of troops. The local taxi association boss (the fourth in as many years, all three predecessors chasing fares in heaven), negotiated with the local command structure and that night heavily armed taxi men were joining the weary volunteers on the Control Points to screen the taxis for potential troublemakers amongst the passengers.

The next day, the situation had stabilised enough to open the major supermarkets and petrol stations to the local community: 20 items of food per person and 15 pounds of fuel per car. Thousands queued but there was no panic or complaining.

Later the State returned in the shape of police and army reinforcements and at last ANC public representatives came to the barricades to thank the volunteers for saving the shops and infrastructure. The numerous charity and voluntary organisations in the region began preparing to return to the townships to work with civic leadership to help clean up, patch up and make up. On Saturday — almost a week later — the roadblocks were removed.

Before the last barricade was dismantled, however, this factual narrative began to be distorted to conform with the liberal perspective of what should have happened.

First, we were told by the Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, that this well-planned attack on food security and communication routes — likely instigated by former and perhaps current members of the State Security Agency, once Zuma’s in-house dirty tricks department — was not an insurrection at all, implying it was little more than a spot of over-boisterous looting by the poor.

This account does not work on two levels. Why was it only the Zulu poor who rioted while the rest of the country, equally poor, stood wary but quiescent? And how does it explain the deeply disturbing fact that large numbers of middle-class black people chose to loot rather than join the barricades?

President Ramaphosa’s government is itself divided on the issue, but it is instructive that his first and typically meaningless response to the mayhem was to offer a monthly living allowance to all, an offer the State cannot afford and which will most certainly be seen in the townships as a reward for violence.

Poverty and inequality is a reality in South Africa and both have been immeasurably compounded by 27 years of ANC misrule. But for President Ramaphosa, the poverty mantra serves as a convenient get-out-of-jail card to avoid the unpleasant reality that he has failed to deal with a violent and insurrectionary pro-Zuma action of his own party.

Second, the revisionist narrative presents a united nation standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the barricades against the forces of anarchy. It is not true. The communities that protected their neighbourhoods were overwhelmingly white and Indian-descended. Those that did not were overwhelmingly black.

This stark reality can only play out one way. Racist perspectives by the minorities will be confirmed, together with a vow never to be caught short again: already there is talk of resurrecting, with or without Government permission, the old commando system of district militias which were dismantled immediately after the ANC came into power, with a catastrophic impact on rural security. Black South Africans’ sense of impotence, humiliation, envy and failure will once again be deepened.

Race, the sub-text to everything that is said or done in this country, is now put under the spotlight in a way that not even years of discrimination by the ANC — in terms of its affirmative action policies — could do. The actions of the armed citizens who defended their infrastructure for the benefit of all, are recast as that of selfish and dangerous people. The Indian community is particularly in the firing line as the heaviest toll of looter deaths occurred in their areas, probably because they were most immediately at threat — seven alleged vigilantes have already been arrested for murder. Marches against the communities are being organised to protest the number of black looters shot during the days when the State absented itself.

Meanwhile, the looting mobs are described as ethereal, aggrieved, morally-neutral groups who just happened to be around when some bad things went down. Personal accountability and agency disappears. The ANC likes it: the country is run that way.

A third distortion in the narrative involves the role of tribalism. Zuma is a Zulu and mobilised sub-nationalism to win the leadership of the ANC in 2009. He then drove a huge recruitment of Zulus into the ANC, meaning KwaZulu Natal regions are now the largest bloc in the party. In power he shamelessly promoted crony Zulus into cabinet, public service and, worryingly, into senior positions in the security forces.

Yet not all Zulus support Zuma. His support base is primarily rural and traditional: urbanised Zulus are wary of him. In the run-up to the first democratic elections in 1996, there was severe violence between Zulu nationalists and ANC Self Protection Units in KwaZulu Natal and those spots around Johannesburg with a large Zulu presence — the very same spots where there was violence this month.

President Ramaphosa prefers not to address this issue for fear of offending the largest bloc in his party and rekindling Zulu tribalism in KwaZulu Natal. This reticence prevented him from acting decisively years ago when the province started slowly spiralling into insurrectionary and criminal activity. The price for Ramaphosa’s political cowardice was paid in blood and treasure last week.

All of this has led to perhaps the most frightening realisation of all: Ramaphosa’s State is a sham. Beyond the limousine cavalcades, inherited institutions and traditions, speeches, postures and grand plans lies… nothing.

Public health, utilities and education are now largely smoking holes. That it should also be true for law and order, the last redoubt of the State, has proved shocking and enraging for many ordinary people. An angry open letter to Ramaphosa from a white South African under the headline Gatvol, a more robust Afrikaans expression for Belly Full, went viral and gained 200,000 hits in six hours.

In the meantime, responsible South Africans will pick up the detritus left by its wilful fellow citizens; they always do. The country will return to a tense peace and will continue to stumble towards an uncertain and hopefully not inglorious future. And the African National Congress will most probably remain in office for no better reason than people ask: if this is the damage they can do in power, imagine what they would do without its constraints.

Brian Pottinger is an author and former Editor and Publisher of the South African Sunday Times. He lives on the KwaZulu North Coast.