It is one of the expanding weapons of choice for angry South African citizens – occupation of major arterial roads, such as the N3 at the Mooi River Plaza, in the name of visibility of grievances. Plus, it brings the bonus, for another protest constituency, of putting food and goods on the table. Havoc and destruction are par for the course.
This is contemporary South Africa where protests are routine, and escalating repertoires of protest action are commonplace. In the process, long-unfulfilled demands for socio-economic rights are a security cover. In this current South Africa, those who live in poverty and hunger are often on the verge of giving up on the political establishment and representative democracy’s ability to help them have that famed “hope for a better life” (African National Congress in the 1994 elections).
The Mooi River torching and looting of 23 trucks, plus damage and some looting to a further ten or so, earlier this week, were a virtual replay (albeit amplified), same location, of the events of Easter Monday. It was equally a repeat playout of an alliance of grievances and actions between poverty-stricken communities alongside the N3 and truck drivers who object against long-haul transport companies hiring foreigner drivers, allegedly at lower remuneration levels. Direct, and violent, action now substituted for passé advocacy and negotiation.
Up for explanation are the exact sequences of how these protests unfolded. In the highway revolt of 2 April, the truck drivers seemingly were in the lead. Police Minister Bheki Cele at the time told South Africa how two “lorries” carrying truck drivers arrived from Estcourt around 3:30 that morning, and started to torch. The looting followed. In the variant of 29 April, the local community appears to have been in on the action right from the beginning. It is possible that the truck drivers were right there with the local community; equally feasible is that community actors know the repertoires and arguments by now…There were unverified reports that the police had had information that a protest was planned for 1 May, but that the actions had been brought forward, fooling the police.
The ‘Mooi River type’ of protest is epitomised, hence, by the convergence of three protest strains. First, aggrieved truck drivers stood up for improved employment prospects and labour rights, even if their actions reeked of xenophobia. (Truck operators-owners explained that the non-English speaking origins of loads on their way to the Durban port often demand that the drivers be French or Portuguese speaking.) Second, there are the angry and hungry, or more generally poverty-stricken, communities that live alongside the N3 by Mooi River. Like comparable communities along a multitude of other arterial roads these citizens are like fish in the water of local communities; chances are their looting will remain undetected or without repercussions, even if they are arrested on the day.
Third, looting flows into lawlessness. There are the factors of poverty, unemployment and hunger that render lawfulness and respect for the property of others to be as ‘foreign’ as others may perceive the drivers of the trucks to be. Those with bulging pantries or groceries for the month are unlikely to partake in looting. The communities know by now, too, that prospects are good that they will face, at worst, minimal prospects of arrest and prosecution. A total of 54 Mooi River community members, we have been informed, have been arrested after house-to-house police searches to find looted goods. They are said to be scheduled for court appearances today (Wednesday).
From the bulk of past experiences across South Africa, and possibly with good reason, little comes of arrests and court appearances when community protesters try to extract socio-economic rights like food-on-the-table and municipal or provincial service delivery from government. It is a guilt-ridden government; one that knows it shares responsibility for failing its people, and enters elections on the grace of forgiveness of continuously disadvantaged citizens.
The couplet of Mooi River revolts also signified a new and more severe form of public protest in South Africa. It was more systematically planned and executed, and magnified in spectacle than the protests that have gone before. They moved beyond conventional ‘service delivery’ protests and beyond arterial route occupations – with more impact than, for example, taxi blockades of Gauteng’s N1 and the erstwhile poo protesters’ Cape Town blockages of the N2. In terms of execution, the Mooi River protests had covered, to some extent, the alternative Midlands routes of the R103 and R33 as well. In terms of spectacle, the massive damage to private property and public roads infrastructure exceeds the routine damage of tyre-burns and mutilated road signs, or a torched municipal building (excluding a few notable historical buildings). At the same time as the truck action, Mooi River police thwarted attempted looting at a local supermarket.
The Mooi River protests could serve as a reminder of South Africa’s vulnerability to arterial occupation protests generally (some taxi occupations in the past had blocked railway lines along with major roads). Besides the road occupations already noted, there have been, for example and for diverse motivations, as early as 2007 anti-removal (from the Joe Slovo settlement) N2 occupation in Cape Town, repeated service delivery and local government leadership protests on the N2 by Grabouw, Gauteng’s Golden Highway as it meanders through a multitude of poverty-stricken settlements and their problems with housing and unemployment, the N12 in the North West where race protests have spilled onto the N12, all access routes into Mahikeng in earlier phases of the ongoing Supra revolt, and the N3 as far back as 2014 in the Mooi River area when it was closed for protesters’ demands for a mayor to change.
The twin Mooi River revolts come at a time also when a different political culture rules – one of a government that balances itself on the edge of continuous electoral majorities, one which cannot afford to be seen to be acting against the poor – and in the context of unemployment and poverty the boundaries of criminality can be vague.
The ANC is between a rock and a very hard place. This is evident from the hesitant tones in the statement by the KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Transport, Community Safety and Liaison, Mxolisi Kaunda: “People must understand that we are still a country with laws, so we can’t break them and expect that nothing will be done. We are calling on the community to make sure that we calm the situation so that it can return to its normality.” DM