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SA’s rebellion and looting: Political courage needed to address security dilemma, to avoid being held hostage by rogues


Adam Habib is Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The progressive intelligentsia too easily dismissed the call for a state of emergency. They need to recognise that South Africa is not Canada or New Zealand and its security challenges are far more serious.

The past 10 days have left those of us who are far from home aghast at the images and videos of violence and looting, the failure of police to protect citizens, the spontaneous organisation of neighbourhood community defence structures to protect families, homes and businesses, and the opportunism of some politicians milking this for their own short-term, narrow purposes. Some, like me, who have written about these issues before, have also kept quiet so as not to make easy comments from afar. Instead I waited, talked to colleagues, read the analyses and recommended solutions from those who are much closer to the ground. My purpose now is to reflect back to these colleagues a critical review of their ideas and recommendations in the hope that it might be useful to activists and citizens interested in healing the divides and rebuilding communities.

The immediate response of most progressive commentators was to highlight the economic inequalities of South African society and the social polarisation and gratuitous violence that this engenders. One of the earliest and most comprehensive analyses came from Eusebius McKaiser who explained that the looting was not simply the result of a failure of security, but also the deep inequalities and the loss of hope emanating from this – particularly among younger citizens. A sustainable resolution, he held, would require a comprehensive programme to address inequality. Many others followed in the same vein to explain the widespread violence and looting through the lens of structural inequality and poverty, some in powerful, emotive and graphic detail through interviews with those who took part in the looting.

It is hard to contest the validity of this argument. Inequality is indeed one of the structural fault lines of our society and has been recognised as such since the dawn of our democratic transition. But while inequality accounts in the main for the gratuitous character of our violence, it alone cannot explain why the violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng erupted at this moment. Politics matters; the violence and looting cannot be understood without thinking through the actions of factions in the ANC, the behaviour of government officials and some opposition parties, and the mobilisation (and counter-mobilisation) of some civic actors. Moreover, strengthening our democratic foundations requires more than simply addressing inequality; it is also dependent on addressing two other causal challenges: security and state capability.

Post-apartheid South Africa has never resolved its security conundrum. This is not only about the destruction of capabilities in the defence, intelligence, police and security services, which has been highlighted by multiple analyses in recent days. It is also about the deep scepticism around security among activists and intellectuals, and the complacency around political violence that this has engendered. The scepticism emerges from our apartheid past when security services were used to extensively violate the rights of citizens. But the scepticism has also consolidated itself in the post-apartheid era, given the incompetence of the police and their heavy-handedness in civic and labour protests, most violently manifested in the massacre at Marikana. The result is a reluctance to call out violence and support prosecutions of those who perpetrate it in political and civic protests. This has now been opportunistically capitalised upon by malevolent political actors like those associated with the Jacob Zuma faction and the EFF who regularly use Marikana as a political whip to dodge accountability for violent protests and illegal activities. This is, of course, untenable; it gives rogue political actors the space to organise and mobilise in a manner that undermines the democratic foundation, as we have seen in this most recent attempt to foment a rebellion. Moreover, this will not be the last attempt unless concrete steps are taken to close the space for illegal and violent actions.

This requires all democratic actors – politicians, civic and political activists, trade unionists, business leaders, academics and public intellectuals – to develop the political courage to address our collective security dilemma, lest we forever be held hostage by rogue political actors. We have to recognise that all societies, including democratic ones, require security. This does not mean that we have to resort to authoritarian security provisions. It does, however, necessitate that we take violence seriously, protect citizens who are subject to it, and develop capabilities in the police and security services so that they undertake their responsibilities in a manner that is respectful of rights and our constitutional provisions. 

The final causal factor that needs to be addressed for democracy to be sustainable is state capability. Again, there has been much public lamentation of the non-existent capabilities in the police and intelligence services who were incapable of thwarting the rebellion and looting. But the challenge is not only in the security service; it has become generalised across the state, as has been attested to by the Auditor-General reports and the complete collapse of state services at all levels of government. Perhaps the most graphic example of this outside the failure of the police and security services was the incompetence that accompanied the vaccine roll-out programme in South Africa, and the Covid-related deaths which could have been avoided had it not been for the incompetent (and corrupt) civil service and political class. There can be no more graphic demonstration that the real victims of state incompetence are its citizens. 

There is, of course, some recognition of this in civil society and within the progressive intelligentsia. But this is seen as the result of a crude cadre deployment programme. And while this is indeed an important contributing factor, it is not the only one. Equally dangerous has been a transformation agenda that ignores the principle of meritocracy. This has been enabled by a crude argument that suggests merit is racially encoded and should therefore be ignored in appointments. But while one needs to guard against crude culturally grounded merit indicators, this must not translate into appointing inadequately qualified staff to public and private institutions. My own experience in public institutions suggests that it has become a widespread problem and needs urgent correction at multiple levels including executive management, boards and unions. 

These three foundational elements of a sustainable democracy – an inclusive economic agenda, security, and a capable state and civil service – must all be addressed. If there is a lesson to be learnt from the oft-cited developmental experience of South East Asia, it is that all three are necessary and intertwined. Moreover, they need to be sequenced in a manner that allows one to facilitate the other. What then does this mean for South Africa in its current predicament?

Inclusive economic development is not possible without addressing the immediate security situation. This requires not only cessation of violence and looting, but also holding accountable those who fomented the violence in the first place. Otherwise rogue political actors are likely to attempt a rebellion again in the very near future and the political situation will remain tenuous at best. Have we acted appropriately and decisively in this regard? Specifically, should we have declared a state of emergency, at least in the affected provinces? There was a call for this but those close to the President and much of the progressive intelligentsia hesitated, fearing it would be used by Zuma’s faction (and even the EFF) to delegitimise the President and his actions.

The most explicit critique of the state of emergency option came from the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac). Its argument was that it would create conditions that might enable the rights of citizens to be violated, and that the security challenge could be addressed through the Disaster Management Act. What remained unsaid was that they feared that the police, intelligence and defence services were compromised by Zuma’s cronies who dominate the leadership corps, and that his faction would use the apartheid label to describe any decisive security action such as a state of emergency. 

Let me respond to each of these concerns in turn. 

First, the sole focus on the Bill of Rights by Casac ignores that the more foundational pact between citizens and their state – obedience in exchange for security – had been violated across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The sovereignty of the state was put into question as citizens were abandoned by the police when they came under threat and had to establish and mobilise their own neighbourhood security structures to protect their families and property. This legitimate protection then ran the risk of degenerating into vigilantism and further racial conflagrations. Decisive action is thus required if the authority of the state is to be re-established. Those who fomented the rebellion have to be held accountable quickly, as must those who committed the most gratuitous acts of violence. Only this can re-establish the confidence of citizens in the state. 

There is, of course, a legitimate concern about the loss of civil rights – including media freedom – that may ensue from such a course of action. But a partial state of emergency limited to specific provinces where the security challenge prevails would contain the suspension of rights and be directed to specific individuals and groups that have deliberately tried to destabilise the democratic state. Moreover, the state of emergency would be temporary, and could be lifted as soon as the immediate security threat in the affected provinces is contained. It is worth noting that no state should condone the deliberate destruction of its logistics infrastructure, and South Africa has for too long tolerated this in a low-key form through the attacks on trucks in the Mooi River complex. The limited state of emergency would enable a comprehensive solution to this challenge.

Second, a state of emergency drives the accountability dynamic directly to the President. This is particularly important given the factionalised character of the ruling party which has constrained the ability of the President to act decisively. This direct line of accountability to the President would also enhance his room for manoeuvre to act against recalcitrant leaders in the security services, again particularly important when so many have essentially been deployed by Zuma. A direct line of accountability also creates an incentive structure for some (not all) of these leaders to shift their allegiance from the former president to the current one.

Finally, it is incumbent on the President and the progressive intelligentsia to challenge the thesis that all forms of security are illegitimate. This is a self-serving narrative that allows rogue political elements to threaten the rights of citizens. This has to now come to an end and there is popular support for this among the broader citizenry who are sick and tired of being abused by rogue politicians. It requires the development and articulation of a narrative making the case that even democracies require security to protect citizens, although this has to be practised in a manner consistent with our constitutional values. This will also legitimise and establish the parameters for a reform of our security services so that they can fulfil their obligations in a manner consistent with our constitutional values. It would also require a more consistent approach to condemning violence and holding accountable all those who perpetrate it, whatever their ideological and political leanings. 

The progressive intelligentsia and Casac too easily dismissed the call for a state of emergency. They need to recognise that South Africa is not Canada or New Zealand and its security challenges are far more serious. It is essential that the foundational pact of any state – obedience in exchange for security – is fulfilled if the South African state is to retain any legitimacy and the country is to have any chance of the political stability that is necessary for inclusive development. 

The other two foundational requisites – an inclusive economic agenda and a capable state – will require a radical but pragmatic set of economic policies that foster growth, jobs and inclusion, and a marshalling of the private sector to address these collective national goals. Moreover, inclusion must not be solely focused on deracialising the apex of the class structure (creating more BEE billionaires), but rather on reducing the Gini coefficient within society. None of this will be possible without a capable state which takes seriously the appointment and retention of appropriately qualified individuals. 

It is often said that Cyril Ramaphosa plays the long game. And he has had some successes in this regard. Zuma’s political and patronage base has been eroded and he is now in jail, Ace and Supra have been forced out, and the NPA is being reorganised. Change is slowly under way. But sometimes the short game is necessary lest it undermine the agenda of the long game. This is what confronts South Africa today. If those who fomented the rebellion are not speedily held accountable, they will try it again and inclusive development will continue to be undermined. This is the central lesson that the President and the progressive intelligentsia need to come to terms with. South Africa’s future depends on it. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • sally pickering says:

    Hit the king-pins Mr President and the rest will tumble around them.

    • Rory Macnamara says:

      spot on. play the short game Mr Prez. get rid of the hangers on and put people in place that understand what their portfolio actually means. place people from business, activists, church but really stop pandering to the ANC thieves and robbers.

  • Gerhard Pretorius says:

    What is the point of writing and publishing another summary of last week’s traumatic events if it does not even contain any new insight or suggestion?

    • Coen Gous says:

      Agree…just another recap!

    • Livhuwani Nemuthenga says:

      This is a great opinion piece. It addresses an angle which many activists and intellectuals have chosen convenietly to dismiss so that they can appear to be relevant and be seen to be on the side of the “people”, that of the “three foundational elements of a sustainable democracy – an inclusive economic agenda, security, and a capable state and civil service”.

      • Rory Macnamara says:

        Agree, the article may be a rehash but so are the comments. difference with this article is from a man that was in the middle of Fees must fall and has always added value to the discussion.

    • Hendrik Mentz says:

      Next time Gerhard (& Coen), try reading for meaning. This is a terrifying perspective, carefully observed, clearly articulated that tells me that if you don’t draw a clear line in the sand before long you’re looking at a sand dune.

  • Bee Man says:

    Great article… and there are many, on BD, N24, DM etc, and generally all these opinions, articles and reports say the same or similar things.. Cyril needs to get off his butt and make some hard calls to regain any semblance of respect. He must do the right thing no matter the consequences within ANC. The long game just became a short game with different rules, so play by the new rules. Should NEC not supprt him and try withdraw and replace him, I believe they will finally drive the the party to bust.

  • John Cartwright says:

    Good food for thought around the concept of a state of emergency and the need not to have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of temporarily declaring it, particularly in a localised form.

  • Laurence Erasmus says:

    Cyril continues to play the long game and whilst he does so his enemies are regrouping, restocking and reorganising for their next attack which will be soon!

    • Martin Dreschler says:

      Looks like the next act of sabotage is already in full swing: the hacking of the software handling processing all incoming and outgoing container traffic in Durban, Cape Town, PE and Coega. Besides bulk commodities like coal and iron ore, more than 90 % of all international trade with South Africa is handled with containers. More empty shelfs to be expected for a much longer time.

  • Ian McGill says:

    Let’s start with outfitting the usual suspects with orange overalls. Then unvote the ANC and their corrupt cadres. We need consequences for criminal behaviour.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    The IRR has articulated a clear policy path that sees the removal of race based policies and the myriad of other obstacles to employment and growth. A purge of all unqualified people in the Administration is also key with merit based appointments.

  • Cherry White says:

    What an excellent analysis by Adam Habib. Really enjoyed that.

    Hope Al Jazeera English reads it: their South African reporting has, of late, been so sloppy, limited to emphasising the gulf between rich (= White) and poor (= Black).

  • Bruce Sobey says:

    You have totally missed an important aspect of a functioning democracy which also needs to be addressed. We have totally lost our moral compass! This was epitomised for me when, after curfew, a taxi came up to the blockade we were manning and asked the way to Marianhill (where the looting of Westmead was happening from). There were 2 young guys in the front and 4 solid gogo’s inside. It then roared off, obviously to join the looting. What has our society come to when there is no shame, even among the older people? We have large numbers of children without a father (I remember a figure of over 60% being quoted). This has to impact on society at large. Any recovery plan has to also address the moral and structural fabric of our society.

    • Wendy Dewberry says:

      This you talk about was described by Emile Durkeim called “anomie” , and i find it still a particularly helpful petspective for understanding our supposed moral breakdown.

  • Carsten Rasch says:

    People generally do not trust the State, nor the governing party, for good reason. Looks like Ramaphosa doesn’t either. Handing our police minister the unlimited power that is possible under a SoE is like presenting a Chainsaw Murderer with a chainsaw, or perhaps more fitting, giving a sharpened butchers knife to an infant, murmuring ‘careful now, don’t cut yourself’. A State of Emergency in particular requires a capable government. I don’t agree with mr. Habib on that aspect. Still, lovely to read his clear, reasoned lines.

  • Derek Hebbert says:

    The only problem is the ANC First dogma. And sadly that will never change therefore good luck with the rest of it.

  • Rg Bolleurs says:

    Good article, good insights. If law and order are not in place, nothing is possible in society. And this includes the concept and protection of private property.

    That’s why EWC will bring disaster to the country if it is ever implemented

  • N Another says:

    Let’s stop talking about and referring to inequality! Inequality has always existed in every society through the ages.

    The goal must be to reduce and eliminate POVERTY. This is much more achievable and targeted and will in turn produce the social security that we need and yearn for.

    Please for the last time – no one will ever achieve anything by aiming to address inequality. Only the reduction of poverty is possible and achievable.

    • Biff Trotters says:

      I partly agree, except that I point out that POVERTY has always existed in (almost) every society through the ages too. The challenge, if one can call an impossibility a challenge, is that the GDP would need to be 10 times its current value to move everyone into the “middle class”. At the moment the more likely way that inequality can be eliminated is by moving everyone to the poor class, which can be done very easily.

    • Nicola Cox says:

      Inequality. Let’s do indeed talk inequality when we talk of the law and security and law enforcement . A just society must be based on the premise that all are equal before the law. Surely!!! I agree that we are individuals and I am prepared to die for religious freedom and I will continue advocating a brotherly rather than equal economy.

      • Nicola Cox says:

        A guy broke into my car in boad daylight. I saw his feet dangling out as he was rummaging. I grabbed his bike so he would not run off and waved down a passing police car. He was arrested. Weeks later I was called to court. He had been in jail the whole time! He had taken nothing and I requested as much. He was sentenced to 6 months in jail. I want equality in the justice system. Treat Steinhoff, Zuma and the SAA auditors etc equally.

  • George Fulford says:

    Thoughtful insights. To one who reads from afar (Canada) one ponders what may happen in the USA in the wake of Trump and his likely prosecution for decades of tax fraud and corruption.

  • David Meyer says:

    I don’t think Adam’s contribution is a recap at all. This is the best case I’ve read for addressing the security problem. There may well be serious risks to a short-term state of emergency in KZN particularly but very firm action is needed if rogue politicians are to be stopped from continuing their attack on the state. Can we survive another round of chaos? From malls, to cyber attacks – what will they target next? I think Adam is right – one has to be flexible – the lack of basics is only going to make matters much worse very soon – we need the short game now – if Cyrils long game is going to succeed.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    The “ capable state” of which Prof Habib speaks , cannot and will not be a reality, unless the ANC ditches the policy of cadre deployment. No matter how good, equitable, or promising a policy may be, if it is in the hands of dishonest, corrupt and incompetent officials, whether at municipal , provincial or national level, it can never be successfully administered. And that is the plain, unvarnished truth.

  • gorgee beattie says:

    A State of Emergency is the only way to effectively deal with the current situation,
    Martial law could be applied selectively.
    Round up the bad guys and try them before military tribunals and lock them up for a long time.
    No bail, no “lawfare”
    The N3, N2, etc, etc should “curfewed” and with military rapid response on the ground and in the air. Sharpshooters should deal with the arsonists.
    But then does the Commander in Chief have the loyalty of the security forces?

  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    A lot of time and thought was spent on this article by Habib, but without any value contribution I’m afraid.

    First, “Those who fomented the rebellion have to be held accountable quickly, as must those who committed the most gratuitous acts of violence. Only this can re-establish the confidence of citizens in the state. ” Pray tell, how will this happen when some of the fomenters sit on the NEC and the Cabinet itself, and when some of the gratuitous acts of violence were committed by law enforcers?

    Second, “a state of emergency drives the accountability dynamic directly to the President”. Poppycock. No President in the world can enforce a state of emergency without the unequivocal support of his military and police, and their leaders. Ramaphosa does not have this.

    Third, ” it is incumbent on the President and the progressive intelligentsia to challenge the thesis that all forms of security are illegitimate”. What? Who are those guys, the ‘progressive intelligentsia’? Any names to offer? And since when do we labour under this thesis anyway?

    And then two more to come – “an inclusive economic agenda and a capable state”. Apparently these “will require a radical but pragmatic set of economic policies that foster growth, jobs and inclusion, and a marshalling of the private sector to address these collective national goals”. I thought that’s what the ANC has been trying to do since 1994? And what exactly does “marshalling” of the private sector mean?

    No suggestions, Habib?

    • Smudger Smiff says:

      I do agree M Macleod.
      Yet another laundry list [incomplete] of why we are in such a mess and virtually nothing practical to dig us out of the poo.
      Mr Habib’s progressive intelligentsia seem to be clueless.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    “Inequality” is not only a natural state but is here to stay. Focusing on it means you are comparing the situation of one person to another which is absurd instead of being concerned with the absolute state of those below a certain line. I could give a ton of analogies but you get the drift. Another meaningless term is “inclusive economy”. I have heard it bandied about but never explained. A “functioning” economy along mainstream lines would be a great start: inter alia job enhancing Labour laws, privatization of SOEs , deregulation, an educated honest public service and a criminal justice system that is effective and a government that is not an offshoot of the mafia.

  • Paula Savva says:

    What happened to Treason?

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