Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 27 July 2021

South Africa is not at war with itself, but sometimes it feels that way

In the same way that radio broadcasts played a vital role in inciting ordinary citizens to take part in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Twitter has become a platform for disseminating toxic messages and exhortations to violence, death and destruction.

Ismail Lagardien

Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

As more information about the July insurrection streams in and researchers sift through evidence about the identities of the main instigators and provocateurs, a fairly clear picture is emerging that the violence, looting and killings were deliberately started. 

While firm conclusions, based on solid evidence should be forthcoming – for the sake of justice and to prevent any future attempts at destabilising the state – it is clear that those who initiated the insurrection became exemplars of many a war leader over the centuries who lost control of their situation. 

We may bicker, to be sure, over whether “war” is the right word, or when conflict may rightfully be described as “war”, but for the sake of argument the instigators and provocateurs forgot that once a war or organised conflict starts it usually takes on a life of its own. Once it has taken on a life of its own, it becomes difficult to reel it back in without astute and forceful leadership. 

The evidence so far suggests that those who initiated the conflict, ostensibly to protest against the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma for defiance of the law, lacked any strategic thinking, they were short-sighted – like a child sat under his bedsheets who insists on setting off a firecracker only to get a thrill from the bang – and failed to consider the fire that may follow. In this sense, the insurrectionists made the first fatal error of strategy: they lost sight of their own objective and thereby failed to concentrate all their efforts on their apparent objective – the release of Zuma from prison. As soon as they lost focus things got “out of hand”. They had an edge (a simple objective), but because they were so woefully ignorant (salivating only over the firecracker’s bang) they set vast swathes of the country alight. And Twitter became a potent weapon.

Twitter as firestarter

Donald Trump was once “the most powerful man” in the world. As president of the US he was the most prominent, if not the most influential political figure in the “real world” of his country. Twitter, it is often said, is not the real world. That is true enough, but when Twitter intervened and banned Trump from its platforms the social media platform became part of the political machinery of the US. So, Twitter is not the “real world”, but in application (or when it is “weaponised”), it becomes part of the real world. Not everything is political, but anything can be made political…. In the same way that radio broadcasts by Radio Rwanda, and Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines played a vital role in inciting ordinary citizens (notably illiterate masses, people who are usually easily to manipulate) to take part in the massacres of their Tutsi, and moderate Hutu, neighbours during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, Twitter has become a platform for disseminating toxic messages. The use of Twitter by the July insurrectionists was detailed in a report by Daily Maverick last weekend. Twitter might not be the “real world”, but it is clear that it can be used as a firestarter as evidenced by the tweets by Zuma’s daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla

Regrouping and the war analogy

At the time of writing things seem to have quietened down. This should be a good sign, but given the stated objectives of the RET-EFF Axis they may simply be regrouping. There is a very real danger that they will resume and expand their mission. Knowing that there are very many people who lack access to food, water and sanitation, and who eke out a living from whatever is available on the margins of society (not entirely different from the masses of people who were manipulated by radio broadcasts during the Rwanda genocide), the mission-creep of the axis could, by accident or design, include residential areas, housing estates and commercial and industrial complexes. That may be when the problem of losing control returns. 

In warfare or urban conflict there is often a chasm between preparation and performance. In other words the precariat, whom the axis would inspire to “stand up” against the Constitution and the democratic state, now wilfully besmirched as a mere cipher for White Monopoly Capital and liberal international conspirators, may not be militarily prepared, but they don’t need to be, because (like most soldiers/fighters) they usually perform physically and psychologically much more than what they are prepared for or what they have practised. That’s the thing about conflict (or war); you can’t go out and practise every day hoping to become good at it. You engage in conflict only once you actually are “out there” in the field. In this sense, the conflict becomes an act of faith by a collective of civilians and paramilitaries that do not follow conventions or rules. This opens up, again, the likelihood that those who may initiate or instigate the conflict would lose control. 

Such havoc and anarchy may, actually, suit the axis. It is difficult, though not impossible to stretch the war analogy far enough to explain the conflict that ravaged parts of South Africa. Given that leeway, we can tap into the changing nature of war over the past several decades with attacks by non-state actors on economic, transport and communications infrastructure which are increasingly identified as “legitimate targets”. From what we know about the tweets by key figures, none of the axis figures, or the Free-Zuma agitators – which by now have blended into one – have urged a complete cessation of looting, and reportedly encouraged only “responsible looting”. 

Manipulation of the mass of poor people

What happened then is that a protest against Zuma’s legal imprisonment transmogrified into a looting spree with apologetics defending the looting on the basis that people are hungry. In a tweet (9.22pm, 10 July) Duduzane Zuma-Sambudla said (with reference to burning vehicles): “All this wouldn’t have happened” if Zuma had been freed and President Cyril Ramaphosa had “fallen”. 

Well, Zuma is still in prison, and Ramaphosa is still president. More crucially, poverty, misery, homelessness, and a lack of food, water and sanitation remain part of the daily lives of people. Many justifications for mission-creep and loss of control on the basis that people are hungry seem hollow. In the poorest of the poor countries (like Nepal, quite possibly the poorest country in the world) people don’t loot refrigerators, furniture, flat-screen television sets and expensive designer sneakers as means to feed themselves.

One a political level, evidence shows that the axis has achieved a veritable “us” (poor people) against “them” (rich people) situation, where “rich people” is code for the current government – which was democratically elected. This “us” and “them” binary was a key tactic of Benito Mussolini in his manipulation of the poor in wartime Italy. The National Fascist Party turned a noble quest into something cruel. “For us fascists,” Fernando Mezzasoma, the Minister of Public Culture, explained, “what is important is not to live long, but to live with dignity.”

Parenthetically, those among us who would insist that Julius Malema “flip flops” the mention of Mezzasoma (above), reminded me about what Mezzasoma once said of Mussolini, “No one understands him [Mussolini]. By turns shrewd and innocent, brutal and gentle, vindictive and forgiving, great and petty, he is the most contradictory man I have ever known. He cannot be explained.” (#justsaying)

Where are we now? Well, on the surface the conflict is over, and there may be legal repercussions, but it is not outlandish to believe that the axis will not rest until it has completely undermined the state, the judiciary and the media. Until, as Zuma-Sambudla has said, Zuma is freed and Ramaphosa has fallen. It is no coincidence that targets of the axis include vital economic infrastructure, arguably the country’s Achilles heel. For the rest of the population, South Africans cannot rely on the police and the military is a joke. 

The best-case scenario may be that we have no military (which explains why I like Iceland so much), but if you’re going to have a military make sure that its personnel can, at least, march in straight lines, shed the corpulence, and force a break with the fealty to the ruling alliance. The national security apparatus, in general, seems unsure of what its purpose is, and the July insurrectionists have started sucking on the festered teat of plausible deniability. The bad news is that even if (big if) any prosecutions follow, the Lernaean Hydra of Greek mythology will grow two new heads for every one head that is chopped off. South Africa is not at war with itself, but sometimes it feels that way. DM

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  • “…like a child sat under his bedsheets who insists on setting off a firecracker only to get a thrill from the bang – and failed to consider the fire that may follow.”
    Or – blew his nuts off and destroyed his future?

  • Yesterday … listening to the three Indian female journalists (and DM seems to have its fair share of excellent ones) and the kind of harassment they are facing under the BJP and Modhi led government, and surveillance of their activities with the use of the Israeli developed Pegasus spyware (probably also in use here in SA as in many authoritarian and repressive regimes), one is reminded of the kind of ‘war’ that ‘technology’ has facilitated. That India … this once large bastion of ‘democracy’ in the world has now descended into a Modhian theocratic fascism (not unlike its neighbour in Xi land) is a sad part of the trend around the world, especially where males with fragile egos and an unbridled lust for ‘power’ reign. That this once persona non grata in the US when he was governor of a province, is now regaled with international ‘recognition’, sports the kind of beard that Indian sages wear, is a disgrace. The kind of beard that would befit the Taliban, from whom he has probably taken some lessons. The world is awash with uncontrolled testosterone ! Bring me my umshiniwham ! Forget about the tradition of Gandhi, ML King and Madiba et al . That is hard work !

  • I just wonder what is Ramaphosa ‘s plan with SA….IT is so quiet…it is like each one for him/herself and God for all of us…..goodluck my Fellow South Africans

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