First Thing, Daily Maverick's flagship newsletter

Join the 230 000 South Africans who read First Thing newsletter.

Rampant looting threatens the very fabric of South Afri...

Defend Truth


Rampant looting threatens the very fabric of South Africa, but there are ways out of this mess


Oscar van Heerden is a scholar of International Relations (IR), where he focuses on International Political Economy, with an emphasis on Africa, and SADC in particular. He completed his PhD and Masters studies at the University of Cambridge (UK). His undergraduate studies were at Turfloop and Wits. He is currently a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Fort Hare University and writes in his personal capacity.

Giving reward to the looters will not bring about an end to the cycle of looting and violence. The government must demonstrate its capacity to enforce law and order — and visible policing is key to that.

We can all agree that the violence and looting we are seeing in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng have absolutely nothing to do with the incarceration of, or the demands for, the immediate release of former president Jacob Zuma.  

And for those who say the government and law enforcement agencies could have been better prepared for the violence, there is no oracle that could have predicted it. However, it does still beg the question: where is the visible policing in the affected areas?

Is this a case of the police playing politics? We all know that when you want salary and/or budget increases, a crisis is just the thing that can be exploited to realise such demands. Take the all-important matric exams at the end of each year. This is the ideal time for teacher union Sadtu to go on strike because the future of so many children hangs in the balance. Because the government must be seen to have the utmost concern for teachers’ welfare, it is under severe pressure to acquiesce to the demands.  

We know of the budget cuts for SAPS and the crunch on salary increases in the public sector. So is this a case of the police exploiting a crisis to make a point, leaving the commander-in-chief, President Ramaphosa, with no choice but to call on the SANDF to assist? I wonder.

The criminality we are seeing is argued by some to be informed by the triple challenges of unemployment, poverty and inequality — and there is a measure of truth in that. But the spread of this violence and looting is also largely due to the inaction of the police.  

People see the police’s failure to act and they become motivated in other parts of the country to replicate the violence and looting. There appears to be little to no enforcement of law and order from our police service.  

Allegations of the presence of instigators and perhaps even the presence of those with political motives initiating some of these skirmishes must certainly be investigated, but that takes nothing away from the issue of basic policing requirements. 

I understand why the budget for the public order police has been cut so significantly — we live in a democratic country and a rules-based country where huge budgets for that sort of policing is uncalled for. However, until the recent past, under-capacitated law enforcement agencies and the police would simply request neighbouring provinces to make additional personnel available to augment capacity. Why was this not done this time?

Instead, we have called on the SANDF — which possesses no capability to police citizens and has no arresting powers. Soldiers in our national defence force are trained for a single objective — to kill. Not to arrest, not to negotiate or pacify, but to kill. This is a grave mistake.  

The military is a broad sword trained to defend our territorial integrity from foreign enemies; what is needed here is a surgical scalpel and a tool to cauterise the wound. The looting is taking place on a relatively localised level, and in only two provinces so far. A broad-based approach is not needed.

When this chapter blows over, and it will blow over, the national police commissioner, General Khehla Sitole’s head must roll — because what we are seeing is incompetence of the highest order. 

Some are suggesting that the introduction of a social grant will pacify the looters. Now is not the time for this. I am a very big proponent of a basic income grant, but the timing for its introduction must be right. It certainly cannot be done amid violence and looting. 

If the government is seen to be willing to capitulate to criminality, what’s to say the same people won’t continue looting and demand even more than what is being placed on the table? If the government is prepared to go this route, it might as well decide to allow the early release of Zuma. Why not also throw in a farm and a Ferrari for each of us? 

… citizens cannot abdicate responsibility and say this is a government problem only. This is neither helpful nor responsible. Let us all put our heads together and come up with workable solutions going forward.  

The clever thing to do is to quell the violence and looting, thereby demonstrating the capacity of the state to enforce law and order. Then perhaps wait till the opening of Parliament next year and recognise the plight of the majority of our people, exacerbated by the pandemic and the slow progress that’s been made over the years with regard to redressing inequality and poverty. That would be the right time to introduce the social grant. 

At no stage must the government allow a perception that it cannot manage or control the affairs of state.  

The requisite leadership throughout this pandemic has been provided and we are slowly on our way to recovery. The vaccination plan is under way and slowly but surely we are seeing signs of recovery in the economy.  

The destruction of property and burning of malls will mostly negatively affect the poorest of the poor in the end. With food insecurity bound to increase over the next few months, destroying the establishments that serve the poor and provide jobs for people in depressed areas is a dangerous path to tread. 

The suggestion that there should be a reward coming out of this is akin to university students burning down their library or lecture halls and then expecting that teaching should continue unaffected. It does not work that way.

It is, of course, very encouraging to see some communities taking a stand against criminality, stating categorically that this is not being done in their name. Some have even taken to the streets to protect businesses from looting. Those of us who were involved in mass protests during the apartheid years know all too well that there is always the possibility of a criminal element creeping in, hoping to hijack a campaign. We were always diligent and relied on our people to point out these culprits. 

Similarly, we must rely on law-abiding citizens in our communities to point out who these culprits are. I understand those who take umbrage when people are called criminals, the argument being that they can’t help themselves because of their very real needs and their difficult circumstances. But tacit consent for violence for these reasons then suggests it is okay to break the law if you are poor and destitute. I cannot see how we would want to encourage this. We also don’t want these looting activities to continue and become superspreader events.

The government clearly knows that the structural realities of our economy, the land question and the triple challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment are factors that we have to confront if we are to avoid similar skirmishes in the future. Such upheavals threaten our very democracy and our viability as an investment destination. 

However, citizens cannot abdicate responsibility and say this is a government problem only. This is neither helpful nor responsible. Let us all put our heads together and come up with workable solutions going forward.  

I’m sure many will agree: this endeavour requires sacrifices from us all — labour, private sector, government and civil society. 

Carpe diem! Yes, we can! DM


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

All Comments 5

  • “At no stage must the government allow a perception that it cannot manage or control the affairs of state.” Where is this guy living? With very few exceptions, the government has been incapable to manage itself, let alone the affairs of state.

    • Well the government has shown quite clearly that it doesn’t know what to do and cares very little. This is the penalty for putting barbarians in government. How many of them are thinking – let’s raid the treasury and get out of here. Unfortunately the treasury has been left bare.

  • Saw Lesufi walking through a ruined shopping center this morning stating, we are working with the policy to keep this under control. Beggars belief!

  • This article certainly adopts a very lenient and relaxed attitude to government inaction.And surely, given all the chatter on social media in the days leading up to Zuma’s incarceration, we didn’t need an oracle to tell the country to be prepared, as something definitely not very good could soon be happening? The fact is, the ANC has allowed its own internecine war to corrode the country , which has also encouraged both desperate people and criminals to participate. The general public can do as much as it can but surely the ball lies in the government’ s court to provide both security and justice for its citizens. After all, this is a government that does not like to share its authority , and likes to be seen as being in charge!

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted