From the early days of well-documented histories of tribal faction fights, the decades-old taxi feuds and the state-fuelled political violence that cost many lives in the last days of apartheid, KwaZulu-Natal has often bordered on being a lawless playground for criminals.
But events in Isithebe on the north coast this week, where a community with political grievances resorted to torching factories in a local industrial estate, nudges the province closer to being a failed state.
As if it were ever acceptable in the first place, we are familiar with the story of communities destroying government property when they are not satisfied with service delivery: if you want a school, you burn down the library; if you want electricity you destroy municipal water tankers; if you don’t want a particular principal, you shut down the whole school. Until authorities get the message.
But burning down factories that provide much-needed employment opportunities during these tough economic times surely marks new depths of lawlessness, even by the province’s own unenviable historical standards.
Ostensibly, it all started when the community was unhappy with the ANC’s nomination of a previous mayor as a candidate in the upcoming local government elections.
They are also dissatisfied with the decision of the local traditional leader to appoint a new headman.
As the ANC has pointed out, matters could have been thrashed out within the organisation’s appropriate structures. After all, even if the ANC had imposed somebody the community did not want, it should pay the price on election day.
But no, the community will not give the provincial ANC leadership an ear. Instead they demand that the police should release more than 100 people who have been arrested for causing the mayhem that has seen at least six factories and three trucks burnt.
It is a demand that cannot, and should not, be acceded to.
It is estimated that about 20,000 people are employed in the industrial estate and as many as 100,000 mouths that are thus fed.
The damage estimated at R15-million following the attacks is bound to escalate as the whole industrial estate has had to shut down, together with banks, shops and filling stations.
What is happening to the factories in Isithebe is a truly sad story to those who remember how they came to be there in the first place.
The erstwhile KwaZulu-Natal government pursued an aggressive decentralisation drive through its economic development arm, Ithala, to attract major firms to set up shop in rural areas such as Isithebe and Ezakheni in Ladysmith.
Today Isithebe’s local business directory lists engineering, timber, electrical, furniture manufacturing, foundry, transport, paper, oil, stationery, textile and a host of other firms.
Most took advantage of the generous incentives offered then. But they were also attracted by the relatively stable workforce environment in areas under the KwaZulu-Natal government. Labour unrest and general worker dissent over low wages was crushed while progressive labour unions under the banner of the Federation of South African Trade Unions operated under extremely repressive conditions.
The formation of the Inkatha-aligned United Workers’ Union of South Africa in 1986, as a direct response to the emergence of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) a year earlier, failed to halt the political re-alignment of the workforce in the Isithebe industrial park.
And thus it comes about that it is the ANC leadership that is now having to deal with this week’s wanton destruction of those firms.
It is typical of an approach that seems to want to find “political solutions” to clearly criminal activity, instead of unleashing the full might of the law to take its course regardless of the identity of the perpetrators.
What has happened in Isithebe is, by any definition, economic sabotage which must be dealt with as such, regardless of whatever “political solutions” might be put on the table.
For the whole industrial park to be shut down for a week because the state cannot provide adequate security must send a clear message to any potential investor: KwaZulu-Natal, or at least this part of it, is not safe to conduct business in.
The consequences are dire indeed. Last week the provincial government warned against what it termed a “sweeping wave of lawlessness” in the taxi industry where industry-sponsored hitmen pose “the biggest threat to the nation’s security and undertook to double efforts to combat it”.
The taxi industry has long been a law unto itself in the province. Eyebrows are no longer raised when we wake up to the news that the whole city of Durban has been brought to its knees because taxis are blocking all roads.
Shootouts with automatic rifles in broad daylight have claimed many innocent victims across many parts of the province.
Perpetrators seemingly have no fear of the might of the law.
Murders in hostels such as Glebelands and KwaMashu in Durban have come to be regarded as part of life there. So desperate are the residents at Glebelands hostel that Public Protector Thuli Madonsela has been brought in to investigate.
That can only mean one thing: those whose responsibility it is to arrest the murderers have failed.
The Isithebe impasse presents a different kind of challenge: Will the state demonstrate its commitment to ending lawlessness by not giving in to the demands of the community for the freedom of those who are destroying its economy?
This is an opportunity for the provincial government to demonstrate that the state is still in control, which in turn will go a long way towards assuring investors that the billions of rand invested in the Isithebe industrial park will not be allowed to go up in flames merely to appease voters in the local government elections. DM
Photo: Firefighters work to extinguish a truck which was set ablaze in Isithebe. (IPSS Medical Rescue, Supplied to News24)
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