Last week marked two years since the riots that ripped Durban apart in 2021. There are still burnt-out warehouses around the city, and a deep sense that it is in decline.
Many middle-class people left after the riots, some moving abroad and others to the Western Cape. Many of those who stayed are now deeply anxious. This was apparent in the paranoid reaction to the EFF’s failed “national shutdown”, when people armed themselves as if for a war.
The media did not come out of the riots well. Early reports kept referring to “Zuma riots” even when it was quite clear that the people helping themselves to food were not Zuma supporters. Then, as the city was engulfed in massive food riots, most reporting presented the situation as nothing but an outbreak of criminality.
When, after a few days, the initial food riot turned into a general orgy of looting, the media tended to assume that there must be “masterminds” behind the frenzy. Of course, the targeted attacks on infrastructure that began during the second phase of the riots did show evidence of coordination but the wider riot was, like all riots, a spontaneous affair.
Trouble was on the way
It was no surprise there was an extensive social eruption. Our more politically astute political commentators, beginning with Moletsi Mbeki, had been warning for years that trouble was on the way. And after the violently enforced Covid lockdown and then the withdrawal of the meagre Covid grant, there was mass hunger and something was bound to give.
When the state stood down as tiny groups of Zuma supporters openly began to flout the law, the way was open for the mass looting of food and then of other goods, too.
Those on the more silly fringes of the left who celebrated the riots were entirely misguided. Some people got to eat well for a few days, but after that everyone was left worse off, with many jobs lost. The damage to the city and its economy and people was huge and we all lost. Many lives and livelihoods were destroyed.
We should have learnt swift lessons.
One is that the political gangsterism that developed around the Zuma project and was given crude pseudo-left cover by the likes of Bell Pottinger and Black First Land First is a major threat to society and needs to be rooted out with vigorous policing.
A second is that the police, as they currently exist, are wholly unwilling to tackle the political mafias.
A third lesson is that people can’t be left to suffer and go hungry indefinitely. A fourth is that we need to develop a political project that will allow people to channel their anger and desperation in a way that can lead to real, progressive change.
If we have any chance of moving forward and rebuilding confidence, two things need to happen with real urgency. One is that we need independent policing and prosecution to deal decisively with the political mafias that are still running amok in Durban and across KwaZulu-Natal, and are now expanding into other parts of the country.
When 200 armed men in military formation can openly show up in the middle of the day to shake down construction projects it is clear we have become a mafia state.
This needs to be addressed as a matter of extreme urgency.
Captured by political mafias
But it is even more important that we address the crisis of poverty and hunger. We need a massive programme of social investment to ensure no one goes hungry and everyone has at least some stake in society. Of course, the two issues are entwined because, if left to their own devices, any social programmes would immediately be captured by the political mafias.
Achieving credible policing to break the growing power of the political mafias requires emergency measures in the form of the creation of independent policing, investigation and prosecution teams that can operate outside the largely captured existing criminal justice system.
Achieving social inclusion requires forms of social support that are delivered by the national government in a way that enables social programmes to bypass the grubby hands of the locally based political mafias. It is especially important that the almost completely rotten system of ward councillors and committees be bypassed.
With a failed president who is simply unwilling to lead, and a very dubious deputy waiting in the wings, it is up to civil society to drive the push for credible policing and proper social programmes, including, of course, a basic income grant. DM
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.