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Template for trauma: Today’s looting has its roots in xenophobic violence of the past

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Vanya Gastrow is a Research Associate at the Centre for Law and Society at the University of Cape Town. She holds a PhD in migration studies, and recently completed a book on the formal and informal regulation of foreign-owned businesses in South Africa.

The failure of the state to properly clamp down on xenophobic mob attacks for well over a decade has enabled looting as a normalised means of expressing dissent. The ease with which Zuma loyalists have been able to incite and direct South Africa’s frustrated, discontented poor to the country’s economic centres should therefore come as no surprise.

Many South Africans are alarmed at the scale of violent destruction to the country’s economic centres over the past few days. But looting and destruction of businesses as a form of protest has been widespread in South Africa for many years. The difference is that the targets of such attacks have traditionally been small foreign-owned shops, not large South African enterprises. 

The failure of the state to properly clamp down on xenophobic mob attacks for well over a decade has enabled looting to become a normalised means of expressing dissent. The ease with which Zuma loyalists have been able to incite and direct South Africa’s frustrated, discontented poor to the country’s economic centres should therefore come as no surprise.

Looting has disproportionately affected foreign-owned small businesses since the early 2000s. This has been evident in xenophobic attacks that break out periodically in localities across the country, as seen in 2008 and 2015. It has become so commonplace to witness violent crowds descending on foreign-owned spaza shops that we can be forgiven for losing count. Xenophobic looting has also often been preceded or accompanied by polarising inflammatory rhetoric on social media, much like the pro-Zuma unrest unfolding today. 

Xenophobic looting often erupts during the course of demonstrations such as service delivery protests and strikes. This is because encouraging looting of foreign shops is an effective protest strategy for those who can stomach the economic damage and harm to victims. By inciting economic crimes, protest leaders can draw crowds far easier, as bystanders with no particular interest in their cause are given a reason to nevertheless join in. The prospect of material reward can therefore multiply the number of participants involved in a protest action to the extent that they outnumber police. Inciters and ringleaders can thereby challenge the sovereignty of the state without needing any significant widespread grassroots support. 

Similarly, many South Africans have joined in the current unrest, not because they genuinely care about Jacob Zuma’s fate, but because the unrest serves as an opportunity to reap material rewards. This is particularly the case right now as the poor and unemployed have been deeply impacted by Covid-19 measures. As one bystander said on live television on Monday morning in Eldorado Park: “The matter is not about Zuma. People are hungry.”

Since May 2008 when violent attacks on foreign nationals spread rapidly across the country, the state has had an opportunity to learn from its missteps and weaknesses and develop specialist strategies for dealing with widespread mob violence and looting. During those xenophobic riots, many police were caught off guard, leading to the pitiful practice of rescuing shopkeepers but offering little or no protection to their premises. This resulted in many businesses being destroyed. Although some attackers were arrested, few were ever successfully prosecuted. 

But instead of crafting the means to effectively clamp down on xenophobic looting, or adequately addressing underlying social and economic grievances that create tinderbox conditions, government policies and proclamations have tended to focus on proposals to limit foreign-owned shops. 

Numerous government leaders and departments have called for stricter regulation of foreign-owned small businesses. These efforts effectively penalise and further stigmatise the victims of these attacks. They also do little to punish those engaged in violence or ward off potential attackers. In fact, they affirm the effectiveness of inciting looting for political purposes.

Because it has happened so frequently and with so few repercussions, looting has become increasingly socially normalised as a legitimate form of contemporary protest in South Africa. As one news anchor said: “They make it look so normal… They are looting in front of the police and the cameras.” 

One could say it looks normal because it is normal. Looting has been allowed to become part and parcel of protests in South African for well over a decade. 

Other forms of crime previously targeting foreigners have also emerged in the current protests. 

Until recently, the torching of trucks disproportionately affected foreign drivers in KwaZulu-Natal. A mere two years ago, around 60 trucks driven by foreigners  were petrol bombed, mostly in the Mooi River area.

Mirroring these events, more than 20 trucks were burned down at the Mooi River toll plaza at the weekend. 

Weak and lacklustre responses to attacks on foreign-owned businesses in South Africa might be due to many South Africans presuming that this phenomenon was not particularly worrying because the targets were usually small and marginal groups. 

It was as though there was a tacit social contract with looters that they could do as they pleased with foreign-owned businesses, but not with those of citizens. But the past and present are not evidence of the future. It was ignorant to think that the violence, terror and unconstrained bigotry that has been allowed to flourish in the country over the past decade would not come back to haunt us all.

This is all too evident in the unrest unfolding today. While foreign-owned small businesses are still being attacked and destroyed, South Africans are now also falling victim to mobs. 

Locally-owned businesses like funeral parlours, pharmacies and printing shops have been gutted and destroyed. But looters have not stopped there. They also targeted big retail chains like Spar, Shoprite and Ackermans. Banks and other businesses have had to close branches in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal. By Tuesday morning, warehouses and industrial parks in Durban had been emptied and torched, leaving thick smoke rising into the air. 

The country now faces widespread and long-lasting economic harm to its own citizens.

The traumatic and disastrous events currently unfolding in South Africa demonstrate that all of society stands to lose when lawlessness is not met with adequate resolve. All crime – no matter who the victim is – should be taken seriously, not only by police, but by our country’s leaders as well as broader society. This entails not only ensuring that no one is above the law, but also that no one is below the law either. DM

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  • Insightful article and if I may….

    The wanton burning of trucks and killing the drivers on the N3 is sadly not new. Nor is the killing that has bedevilled competition in the taxi industry for many decades. The recent murder of the CEO of Rio Tinto and so many similar cases because people would not “conform to demands” also comes to mind. And of course, let’s not forget farm murders and general murder, rape and other crimes carried out daily.

    Such is the low risk of being caught that we have become a haven for crime, attracting thugs and corrupt people from beyond our borders. Them and their families are even issued with passports by the government.

    And then with so many of our officials looting state coffers what do we expect from our ordinary citizens who are increasingly joining the ranks of the unemployed flowing directly from the endless poor policy decisions being made by government? The country is lawless and the number of people taking advantage of this is obviously growing exponentially as services collapse around us all.

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