Maverick Citizen


The stunted arm of the law: Civilians step in as law enforcement is outnumbered and outwilled

The stunted arm of the law: Civilians step in as law enforcement is outnumbered and outwilled
A shopowner holds a machete after staying up all night to protect his business during widespread looting and protests in Durban. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Communities across Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal hit by waves of looting and destruction stepped in to plug the gap left by the crushingly poor efforts of law enforcement to contain this week’s mayhem.

The Durban township of Phoenix was bloody and it was deadly. 

Elsewhere everything has been broken, stolen or burnt during several days of widespread looting and criminality that erupted in the wake of former president Jacob Zuma’s jailing for contempt of court last weekend. 

It seemed hopeless until communities took it upon themselves to protect their shopping centres, the jobs that go with them, and their homes. 

They became the human shields guarding businesses. Taxis were parked across a mall entrance in Johannesburg while manned barricades mushroomed around Durban to manage perimeter access in and out of neighborhoods. 

There has been criticism about racial profiling at some of those “roadblocks”, while the trail of blood in Phoenix warrants urgent investigation.

But, for now, those community protection groups are likely to remain despite mixed signals from provincial authorities that they stand down. 

These protection groups have given overwhelmed police officers breathing space to at least try to focus their efforts on the big targets – business and industrial parks and shopping centres. 

The predominantly Durban-based groups emerged on Sunday night as the unrest moved closer to the city following initial attacks on trucks along the N3 and at the Mooi River toll plaza. 

They were the result of undeniable concern for property and a government that seemed spectacularly stumped.

Within the space of five days since looting and unrest erupted last Sunday, South Africa twice heard from President Cyril Rampahosa. The second time he said nothing that could not have been said in his Covid-19 lockdown update on Sunday evening. 

South Africans were deeply concerned. 

A security cluster briefing on Tuesday, which included State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and her police counterpart, Bheki Cele, offered little, if any, comfort. (The reasons have been thoroughly documented by Daily Maverick over several months, including in this latest article.)

On Wednesday politicians in fine jackets made a public showing, mostly once the looting spree for bulk food, booze, flat-screen TVs, microwaves and fridges had moved to a new location. 

Although the army had rolled into Durban on Tuesday night, the looting continued for that night and for much of Wednesday, escalating significantly in the city as well as in parts of Pietermaritzburg. 

Law enforcement, by then boosted by some 2,500 soldiers, simply didn’t have a grip on things – they were outnumbered and seemingly outwilled.

Fear grips suburbia

By Sunday evening communities in Durban began organising themselves. 

There were real concerns that organised criminals who had cashed in on the unrest would move to businesses in the suburbs and en route turn on private homes.

The neighbourhood WhatsApp groups went into overdrive, from parts of Durban North through to Morningside, Musgrave, Chatsworth, and many other neighbourhoods.

Police Minister Bheki Cele on Thursday confirmed that 20 people had died in Phoenix as a result of the unrest. But, Cele said, while racial profiling of motorists or pedestrians moving through the suburb had been an issue, the primary concern was criminality and not racism.

Similar concerns were expressed in other areas.

Disturbing scenes and videos purportedly emanating from Phoenix have emerged and investigations continue.

The events that unfolded in this township show that when ordinary citizens are expected to augment the thin blue line, good intentions can easily turn ugly. 

Similar groupings that operate in other parts of the city appear to have been more structured.

Zello, the app that turns cellphones into walkie talkies, took off like wildfire and member numbers on individual groups shot up from a handful to hundreds, and even thousands in the case of eThekwini Secure, which had roughly 5,000 members by Wednesday evening. 

These groups, in some cases, are made up of community policing forums (CPFs) and/or local security companies.

Residents, some armed with handguns, baseball bats and paintball guns, provided reinforcements. 

In the heat of Tuesday and Wednesday’s extended strikes on businesses, communications in some of the free app’s groups at times seemed panicky and haphazard.

In others they were strikingly organised, firmly rejecting petty tip-offs or redirecting food shortage inquiries to the WhatsApp channels.

The Zello channels were seemingly mostly restricted for serious “threats”, with members sharing alerts about vehicles that appeared to be loaded with loot or groups of pedestrians trying to move through with jerrycans.

Some of these networks lobbied local filling stations to limit petrol sales in containers – a logical step in an extremely volatile situation. 

The Department of Mineral Resources later issued an official statement:

One of the volunteers told Daily Maverick the system was not perfect, but it had improved with each day and:

  • Was encouraging because it stopped the entry of persons who were trying to enter with hostile intent, on foot and en masse at times.
  • It disrupted the movement of some of the stolen goods through the area. (They found that goods were often stashed in the suburbs for collection by car at night.)
  • It rallied and mobilised community vigilance at a time when people felt abandoned by government agencies. 

While CPFs were encouraged to assist police earlier in the week, by Thursday there was a very definite shift in attitude as some were asked to stand down and remove their barricades. 

In the absence of a convincing alternative by law enforcement, this appears to be highly unlikely for now. 

But as the mayhem began to settle, the initial rumblings of concern about “private policing” became louder, the criticism angrier.

“Racial profiling and waving guns at Black people is not ‘community safe’,” one Twitter user said. 

The experts had called it and however good the intentions, armed private security composed of untrained civilians and in some cases good old “cowboy” types  simply won’t go down well without formalised protocols.

On Thursday morning Queen Nandi Drive in Durban – one of the worst-hit areas – became the scene of a mass clean-up mission. 

Volunteers mobilised the crew and provided them with brooms and rubbish bags. 

After days of relentless destruction, it provided for incredibly heartwarming scenes: South Africans united in the quest to reclaim some semblance of normalcy. 

Said a Durban resident whose family was on active duty during the unrest: “It has given us peace of mind and a sense of regaining some control in the face of complete abandonment by the state.”

That and a sense of community cohesion built on law-abiding principles, and not anarchy. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jonathan Deal says:

    Even Stone Age Man was possessed of an intrinsic right to protect his ‘castle’ and his family. If South Africans ever needed a flawless example of the inability of the State to protect them from unlawful attack, this ‘event’ is it. In the circumstances, and considered with historical uncontrolled violent crime and around 60 murders a day, the prospects for this government to bring about a wholesale disarmament of lawfully armed civilians – and deny new applicants licences for the purposes of self-defence are on a slippery slope.

    South Africa is awash with hundreds of thousands of full-automatic rifles that have leaked from military sources and political party arms caches. A cursory scan of the images of firearms confiscated from violent robberies, hi-jacks and CIT ‘hits’ predominantly shows firearms that are easily identified – and they are not traditional privately licensed guns.

    Thank goodness that law-abiding people from all walks of life have been united against criminals in this time. Any ‘talking head’ that suggests that civilian barrier points must be disbanded should at least arrive with a motivated, capable, willing and properly briefed alternate force.

    • Karl Sittlinger says:

      I really do hope that the discussion about whether self defense is a valid reason for gun ownership is now put to rest. The government (ANC) clearly cannot protect our constitutional right to safety of life and property.

  • Gerrie Pretorius Pretorius says:

    Now watch the police work day and night to prosecute citizens who were forced to protect their own.

  • Alley Cat says:

    Just one more thing that we, the dwindling number of SA taxpayers have to do, that should be done properly by the state.
    I am so tired of this incompetence. Our marginal tax rates are amongst the highest in the world but what do we get for it? Those who can afford it still belong to private medical aid, subscribe to a private security service and potholes are fixed, points men provided for “free” by private companies. Not to mention that if one wants to run an efficient business, one needs power and water back up at huge cost.
    And when citizens now want to protect their communities because the government is incapable of doing so, they are told to step down by grootbek Cele, the king of incompetence.
    I note that you use the word “outwilled” and not “outwitted”? Smart choice as the latter is a given and would therefor be redundant speech.

  • Alan Paterson says:

    A seemingly minor detail. Prohibition of fuel sales in canisters. I understand the rationale. But when Eskom inevitably tells us that “the grid is constrained” and then load shedding begins? As a private person it won’t bother me that I can’t use my chainsaw but often small businesses that rely on petrol driven generators for their living? Just another small nail in our collective coffin?

    • Diablo DC says:

      Absolutely. If Eskom moves to load shedding we cannot fill our generators and our businesses will suffer. Crazy!

    • Dave Prentice says:

      That ruling can be changed very easily. For the moment, there is no load shedding, thank goodness. I’m kind of happy that potential thugs cannot legally obtain fuel in canisters. If Eskom goes down – then allow the canisters. We are extremely adaptable.

  • Jim Alexander says:

    Why hasn’t Cele been fired yet??

  • Terri Van Schaik says:

    Is it just me or is the fact that Tuesday marked the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille a little bit too much of a parallel or just random coincidence? The purpose of which was to free the wrongfully incarcerated. The only difference here is the ‘wrongfully’ part I suppose it depends from whose perspective? King Louise was issuing decrees, hand over foot, to whoever asked in his inner circle. Which allowed them to fill in the blank and have people randomly arrested for merely looking the wrong way. Not quite the same in this scenario…

  • Neal Sokay says:

    The last comment of law abiding principles smacks of hypocrisy if you look at the racial profiling and residents only signs. Freedom of movement is enshrined in the constitution something forgotten in barricade leaders.

  • Ian McGill says:

    Law abiding is like a game, you must follow the rules of the game. If one side refuses to abide by the rules, what to do? The one with the biggest cudgel wins. Time for the citizens to unite.

  • etienne van den heever says:

    All-too- familiar reliance on blasting out knee-jerk blunderbuss regulations – as Mantashe bans use of containers for fuel
    So how do we keep our generators going when Eskom power fails?
    Widespread ANC – govt. failures amidst chaos and Ramaphosa remains conspicuous by his absence

  • ellekatzeff says:

    Our President averted a coup: he had to hold back on law enforcement in order to avoid bloodshed. Had there been a massacre of unarmed looters, he would’ve been forced to step down and the Zuma camp would be free to put their last nails in the coffin of our beautiful land. These insurgents must be brought to book, and we must begin to rebuild a more just South Africa, free from the scourge of corruption. Civil society is already mobilizing. We are one. Nkosi Sikelela iAfrika

    • Ingrid von Moltke says:

      Well said, Ellekatzeff! Overt force would have created a far far worse situation than Marikana ever was , and would have played straight into the hands of the Zuma faction and insurrectionists. What is required now is a calm, considered and resolute response by all in government, including all the opposition parties, and by the ordinary peace-loving citizens of our beloved country. This crisis is an opportunity to really start a renewal process and gung-ho cowboy types are not going to help in this respect. Hopefully Ramaphosa will take heed of the suggestions put forward by Greg Mills and Ray Hartley in their excellent article which appeared the the DM this week.

  • Peter Worman says:

    What needs to happen very soon is for the instigators of this insurrection to be jailed on charges of high treason and denied bail. The DM has already partially revealed who they are. One thing this has shown is that generally law abiding South Africans are prepared to defend themselves and their families and businesses and for as long as we have our own Keystone Cops to protect us this will continue We need a professional policeman like Major General Booysen to be made Police Commissioner and an equally competent Police Commissioner . The same applies for all the other ministries and senior MP’s We need proven competence and honesty

  • Madelein Jansen says:

    For clarity – the looters were advised that there will not be any police presence. Only if public scrutiny was present, did you find the police force “acting” (excuse the pun) against the looters. It is clear as daylight that a portion of the police force was part of the plot. And communities picked up on this.

    Now they’re expected to trust these thieving civil servants? Fool me once- shame on you, but fool me twice…?

  • Alistair Dicks says:

    They have caught so many cops stealing…………

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