South Africa


A race war looms if the government can’t get the looting under control

A race war looms if the government can’t get the looting  under control
Police and security guards stand over arrested looters in Johannesburg on 13 July 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kim Ludbrook)

The ANC failed to sort out its politics when the Zuma matter was for its members only to resolve. Now parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are in flames, as they were almost three decades ago. The immediate danger now is of armed conflict between races, because their government is not capable of protecting its citizens from thugs who have hijacked a pro-Zuma bandwagon for their own nefarious intentions.

The devastating impact of the political violence in KwaZulu-Natal in the 1980s and 90s is often viewed in the context of the number of lives that were lost as communities defended their territories against marauding mobs pretending to be anti-apartheid activists or defenders of law and order. 

They left the township economies decimated after they were finished with looting and razing to the ground general dealers, tea rooms, liquor stores and other local businesses.

The conflict that tore apart previously close-knit communities had escalated uncontrollably when business owners organised themselves into security groups that patrolled their areas and sought to protect their property against thugs masquerading as United Democratic Front or Inkatha supporters. What had emerged was the phenomenon of com-tsotsis, that is, criminals who hijacked political causes for criminal gain.

And so it came about that one of the mammoth tasks faced by the first MEC for economic development in KwaZulu-Natal after the democratic election was to try to rebuild, virtually from scratch, the economy of the townships and other black areas that had been serviced by those family businesses.

The provincial government even established a reconstruction and development fund to kickstart efforts to resuscitate those businesses and local economies. 

The man assigned the task was Jacob Zuma.

As he sits in prison today for defying the orders of the Constitutional Court, Zuma might have time to reflect on those days.

Better than most, he would understand that the legitimacy of the original political grievances counts for little once protests assume their own momentum, while their sponsors stir emotions behind the scenes and from afar.

It is useful to draw parallels between what happened in KwaZulu-Natal those many years ago and the mayhem that’s unfolding and likely to develop even further if not managed sensitively. 

Before the era of human rights and a police service instead of a police force, there is no doubt that between them, the erstwhile KwaZulu Police, the notorious South African Police Stability Unit and the South African Defence Force would have responded firmly and quickly before the events of the past few days escalated to this extent. 

Looking at the scale of criminality across both provinces presently, bodies in mortuaries would now be counted in hundreds.

Not only would the law enforcement agencies have responded brutally, they would have been joined by those whose property had been looted or burnt. The criminals would in turn have organised their own gangs, and the cycle of violence would continue. 

It is the potential for this possibility that poses the greatest danger from what is unfolding.

Those who had something of value to protect when the mobs arrived in the 1980s and 90s did all in their power to safeguard it. They would have had a small licenced firearm and a couple of knobkerries to ward off the attackers. 

The year 2021 is different. Separate residential areas and amenities are a thing of the past. 

The whites and Indians, who in their old age had not the foggiest idea of what it was like to live in the black townships during those turbulent times, now have a sense of how easily things can get out of hand during such protests.

Across the province, in many predominantly white suburbs, armed neighbourhood watch members are cordoning off roads and have taken it upon themselves to determine who may come through.

They want to ensure that when all this is over, they will still have their shops and businesses intact.  

Unfortunately, the face of criminality in South Africa is black. 

The domestic worker and garden “boy” who usually walk around freely within the gated complexes all of a sudden look suspicious and have to account for their presence where they earn a livelihood.

Racial tensions rise in those circumstances. An assault or a murder has the potential to ignite a war between races with consequences even worse than the economic losses suffered so far. 

There is a sense that the state cannot protect its citizens. The government of the day is clearly not in charge. 

The message from President Cyril Ramaphosa was meant to give leadership and assure everyone that he and his team have a handle on the situation.

Unlike during the dreaded 1980s and 1990s, the criminals roving from one mall to another have no fear of the police or the soldiers.

Meanwhile, residents are taking it upon themselves to protect their properties and communities because the government is helpless and afraid to declare a state of emergency lest it is compared to its apartheid predecessors.

As much as KZN premier Sihle Zikalala is at pains to use every media platform to let the world know that Zuma will always have a special place in his heart, it no longer matters whether the former president is released tomorrow or when he qualifies for parole in the next few months. 

The ANC failed to sort out its politics when the Zuma matter was for its members only to resolve. 

Now parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are in flames, as they were almost three decades ago.

We can forget for now about the impact of “ethnic mobilisation” in support of Zuma, as some would have us believe. The immediate danger now is of armed conflict between races, because the government is not capable of protecting its citizens from thugs who have hijacked a pro-Zuma bandwagon for their own nefarious intentions. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ritchie Morris says:

    There is this rabid worm infested dog in the den that kept chasing it tail in circles. Eventually it caught its tail in its frothing mouth. Then it started to eat its tail – and couldn’t stop as it was so crazed and greedy, thinking about its self gratification. It started to eat its hind legs eventually, consuming itself bit by bit, but faster and faster, towards death. The breed of the dog is called ANC. However, the overall litter had some good dogs in it and it is hoped that the good dogs will chase the crazed, mad worm infested dog out of the den. If they don’t, the den will become so infected the pack will eventually become deceased.

  • NickiE Van den Bergh says:

    Great article.

  • Anne Chappel says:

    I have such sadness reading this. Who will suffer? It won’t be the leaders but the poor in remote areas who now have even less chance of a job, of better medical care, of education. The hope that the ANC could fix their own internal squabbling is fading fast.

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    Great piece Cyril Madlala – thank you fo my enlightenment.

  • Colette Hinton says:

    Great article, as depressing as it is. What makes it so depressing is that it is all true!

  • Deanne Plunkett says:

    It is amazing to see how communities have joined forces to protect their people and other precious resources. Residents of posh Estates are working alongside communities of residential townships (under the guidance of the elders). This is the South Africa we need to see: good citizens unite for the same desired outcomes: peace and justice.

  • Bryan Macpherson says:

    “Unfortunately, the face of criminality in South Africa is black” – whether it be dishonest politicians, corrupt businessmen, thieving public servants or the looters in Gauteng and KZN, this is the South African reality.

  • Johan Buys says:

    the primary ANC policy failure was not implementing a one-child policy in 1994.

    Imagine South Africa with between 12 and 15 million smaller population.

    And 20 fewer zuma spawn

  • Ian McGill says:

    There won’t be a race war it will be a class war. The haves vs the have nots. And as usual the have nots will lose . Because they have nothing. No organisation, no political savvie , no plan, no education, no job, no chance of getting one. No chance with the ANC in power with their destructive mindset.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    To even suggest this is a racial thing is irresponsible – this is a “have” versus “have not” issue and those protecting their property are of every race colour and creed

    • Johan Buys says:


      Sorry, but is the ultimate insult to rationalize this about poverty.

      Millions of poor and hungry people are NOT looting! Putting those on the same side of the “war” robs them of the only things they have : dignity, respect for law, decency.

      • Biff Trotters says:

        This is, in my opinion, the most valuable comment on this page. Johan, it certainly beats your other comment about one man one child, even though I am fully on board with urgent reduction of population growth.

  • Karl Sittlinger says:

    I really do hope that people protecting their family, property and livelihood of all races are now not demonized for doing so. The unrest will subside, the blame is yet to come. And it is here where I fear we will be having to deal with polarized views, by race but also by class.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    The internecine “warfare” that we now see, is because the ANC is not only inept, but compromised and dishonest. For years it aided and abetted Jacob Zuma , shielding him and protecting him , even though the criminality became increasingly obvious.Then they deposed him, but they never had the guts to tell him what he had done. They were too cowardly. Today we see the consequences, as Zuma is still able to say he was never told what he had done. Dire results for the country- will there be any for the fat cat upper echelons of the ANC?

    • Charles Parr says:

      My goodness, the man took the presidential oath of office, not once but twice, and now he has to be taken aside and have things explained to him in baby language. He might be uneducated but he’s no fool, just pretends to be when it’s convenient.

  • charles irons says:

    Zuma’s legacy is corruption and state capture. The media who serve the bulk of our population need to communicate this reality as widely as possible. DM has tried to reach more readers but many are still beyond your reach. The language needs to be plain, simple and brief for a population that has little education. Your journalists are capable of such a mission.
    Please publish details of channels, publications, email addresses we can all use to tell this urgent story.

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