South Africa


Metamorphosis of #FreeZuma campaign into the revenge of the poor

Dozens of burnt out trucks at the Mooi River toll plaza in the KZN Midlands after they were torched. (Photo: Supplied)

During the appropriation spree that has caused such chaos the poor masses have confirmed the old mantra of the left: The masses will move with or without us and the most important factor is whether we have grounded organisations to direct their anger into more than this momentary gut-reaction to their misery.

Trevor Shaku is the national spokesperson of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). He writes in his personal capacity.

Triggered by the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, protests began in KwaZulu-Natal and soon spread to Gauteng. Initially, it seemed clear that the protests were against the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma. The first demonstrations were isolated acts at the Mooi River toll plaza on the N3, where two dozen trucks were torched. 

The ease with which movement on the N3 can be disrupted and the main Durban-Johannesburg trucking route shut down testifies to the power of those isolated incidents. Leaders of the #FreeZuma campaign realised this early on and added to their strategy the involvement of the overwhelming, desperate masses of the unemployed and poor. 

Indeed, as soon as underground leaders of #FreeZuma targeted shopping centres, the masses welcomed this invitation with both hands and engaged in looting of grocery stores, followed soon by other retailers and then wholesalers in warehouses, and now even containers near the Durban port. Countless numbers of people seemed unintimidated and undeterred by the presence of the South African Police Service (SAPS) or of cameras from the media and security. With or without protective masks, they continued their appropriation spree with ever greater determination. 

#FreeZuma annihilated by unemployment and poverty

Though it began with the demand for Zuma’s release and possibly continues with such elements concealed, the poor masses soon saw an opportunity to appropriate food and household essentials. As things stand, they are struggling to afford these items due to a combination of rising inflation, reduction of income (due to Covid-19 effects on the structure of work) and no income (mass unemployment). 

By May, the headline inflation hit its high since November 2018, at 5.2%, while the food and non-beverage price index went up to 6.7%. There is usually a much higher inflation rate — typically 2% higher — for the 40% of the poorest South Africans because the real impact of this inflation is reflected in rising grocery costs for households. 

The Household Affordability Index shows that the cost of a “core” household food basket was R1,285 in August 2018, but today, with the addition of brown and white bread into the basket, is R2,240. The extended household food basket was R3,050 in June 2018, and, in June 2021, it had risen by 35% to R4,128. 

During this period, households lost their incomes as economic lockdown killed 1.5 million jobs in 2020, and government grant increases remained below the food inflation rate. 

From an unemployment rate of 16.9% in 1995, today unemployment has risen to 32.6% — but that is conservative. By including those who have given up looking for a job, the rate is more than 43%. 

The number of unemployed people rose three-fold since 1995 and in addition, there are 3.1 million discouraged job seekers and 14 million other economically inactive people within the working-age population. This is an enormous failure of the capitalist labour market and deserves a huge change in state policy to repair.

Such a large number of unemployed typically become a “reserve army of labour” used by bosses to drive down wages. But in times of price surges and widespread unaffordability, this army sometimes feels so furious that it lurches towards mass revolt. 

It is against this background that Moeletsi Mbeki predicted in 2011 that we in South Africa would have a “Tunisian style revolution,” which he projected would occur in 2020. For several years, Saftu has labelled the South African sociopolitical scene a “powder keg”. 

So instead of individual acts of criminality and isolated despair, poor and working people found strength in numbers and without effective organising as an alternative, they took the short-term route of mass criminality.


This juncture — of mass unaffordability and hunger — is that juncture of revolt. The starving masses in their tens of thousands in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng townships apparently did not respect the malls and shops that contain foods, household and personal goods, which they cannot afford.  

Regardless of whether authorities and the middle-class lament in dismay that looting shops is destroying the economy, the poor masses simply don’t care. They cannot care about the economy that does not care for them. It excludes them, and as such, the lamentations of the higher-income class are seen as attempts to beat them into silence and starvation. 

However, to deny criminal elements in the appropriation spree of the poor, would be naïve. The torching of malls, trucks, car garages and factories, and the stealing of car parts in garages are acts of criminality. These acts of criminality manifest in the form of thuggery and destruction, and indeed may reflect syndicates exploiting an advantage presented by the overwhelmed state security forces.

Some looters may also be political supporters of Zuma, trying to intimidate President Cyril Ramaphosa’s governing faction and sway the decisions of the judicial system to an outcome favoured by Zuma’s legal team.

In addition, well-off individuals, seen in their high-value cars and trucks, have obviously exploited this opportunity as well. Theirs was not an appropriation of need, but an appropriation of want. 

Looters condemning looting

Having no plan to distribute South Africa’s vast wealth to the poorest who are barely surviving, ANC cronies have at least resolved to distribute and accumulate some riches among themselves. This distribution takes the form of looting through tenderpreneurship, or allying with traditional white capital. 

This form of looting takes place mainly through overpricing of services offered to the state, flouting procurement procedures in return for kickbacks, illicit financial flows, and so on. 

Through overpricing, the government has lost billions, if not trillions, of rands across departments and state-owned enterprises (SOEs). For instance, the building of Medupi and Kusile power stations has used R450-billion, instead of the initial R150-billion. In 2019/2020, SOEs had irregular expenditure of up to R65-billion, and a wasteful expenditure of more than R2-billion. This is just the tip of the iceberg. 

The mistake of the middle classes, however, is to attribute every crisis to corruption or conspiracy. They do not recognise that the ANC’s retention of the capitalist mode of production that is neocolonial in character, and neoliberal in form, lies at the heart of the crisis. They do not recognise the damage done by the Treasury’s austerity.

Structural unemployment is a permanent feature of capitalism; not only because retrenchments are ways to cut costs of production and maximise profit, but also because monetary strategists in every Reserve Bank in the world believe that a certain level of joblessness — they term it a “natural rate of unemployment” — is necessary to maintain to regulate inflation.

Furthermore, the legacy of apartheid, a racialised capitalism in which owners of big capital and land remain predominantly white, continues to polarise political and social opinion along racial lines.

In a settler-colonial society such as South Africa’s where inequality has soared since 1994, naturally there is a kind of economic system that can be termed racial capitalism. The latest Commission for Employment Equity report shows that though white people constitute just 9% of the population, they occupy 64.7% of top management positions. Between 2011 and 2012, the mean monthly earnings for white people was R24,646, only R6,899 for blacks and R9,339 for coloureds. Oxfam had reported in 2020 that qualified black women earned 24% less than their white counterparts.

The economic inequalities and the prevailing property relations have not only affected the black working class, but have also prevented the comprador bourgeoisie from accumulating the share of the wealth they anticipated. Hence Zuma, having failed to align with the colonial bourgeoisie, attempted to repurpose the SOEs to milk them for the benefit of his cronies and their networks of patronage. 

Sleeping on squabbles

The middle class can scold and lament the looting, yet capitalism, which they dearly embrace, gives birth to these contradictions. The poor will not starve to death, they will rather feast on the rich. The ongoing appropriation spree bears witness.

The revolutionary left has been caught slumbering at the wheel. The slumber is partly due to fragmentation over ideological differences, including squabbling of the old left over what kind of strategy and institutions are needed. 

Perhaps, by refusing to be drawn into the squabbles and antipathies of the old left, the young left stands a chance transcending and overcoming those traditional sources of fragmentation. Besides (correctly) emanating from differences in tactical and strategic questions, the antipathies of the old left also flow from egos and pride. The young left must set to overcome and not inherit sectarian and egotistic divisions of the old, if serious organisation and unification of the working class can take place, to substitute for the current chaos. 

In that event, we will avoid situations where pro-capitalists like Zuma and Co, by opportunistically attributing to themselves revolutionary labels, find opportunities to rent the anger of the masses for their factional battles in the ANC.

During the appropriation spree that has caused such chaos, the poor masses have confirmed the old mantra of the left: the masses will move with or without us, and the most important factor is whether we have grounded organisations to direct their anger into more than this momentary gut-reaction to their misery.

What would such organisations demand now? Without a structural change in the economy and the introduction of a socially planned economy in which work is guaranteed — and can be shared without loss of pay, including through a shorter work week — the contradictions of capitalism will continue generating uprisings in the near future. 

In a socialist system, emphasis would be put on the wellbeing of a people as a whole, and not on profits. It is long overdue that we make this argument central, given that South African capitalism is now birthing its own grave diggers. DM


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All Comments 3

  • Open your eyes to the fact that wealth is created and requires skilled dedicated people to initiate and manage this. To continue to racialise our problems is ideological blindness. There is no proven model of economic management that is better than capitalism in improving the prospects of the poor, despite its shortcomings, and you know this.
    “Furthermore, the legacy of apartheid, a racialised capitalism in which owners of big capital and land remain predominantly white, continues to polarise political and social opinion along racial lines”
    This statement is racist and could not be further from the truth.
    Racist, anti business legislation in BEE and unrealistic labour laws, are the root of the destruction of the economy along with incompetence and greed.
    When you buy a South African made T shirt for more than a Chinese one, then you will enable the SA manufacturer to pay his workers more. Not difficult to grasp!! Low wages, as in China, are the root to large scale employment social upliftment. Show me any country that has emerged from poverty without going down that road.
    Get out of the dogma and become part of the solution and not part of the problem!!

  • “.. poor masses soon saw an opportunity to appropriate food and household essentials …”
    Poor? – witness the cavalcade of cars, bakkies, etc., being loaded by comfortable-looking individuals; “household essentials”? flatscreen TVs, microwaves, electronic and sporting gear? I’m afraid the Leninist picture painted above was out of sync with what the news crews showed us

  • Good start and then it turned into the usual blame the middle class/whites narrative, spiced up with somr proposed Marxism because anyone with any savings is automatically pure evil and a capitalist.
    That communism never worked and socialism only with capitalism as a partner with a high tax base to support it is as usual just ignored.