“Will these events spark a big rethink, and change South African politics?” – Jonathan Katzenellenbogen - Biznews

14 July 2021 - The spate of rioting and looting that began at the weekend has to be a turning point. Never before in our post-1994 history has there been such large-scale lawlessness across the country.

Has government lost control? It certainly seems so. Looters and rioters have destroyed countless businesses and caused millions of rands worth of property damage. Speaking to Bloomberg, the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa estimates that retailers have lost over R5bn – an unprecedented figure. As criminals ran amok, the woefully under-equipped South African Police Service stood aside, barely able to deal with the chaos unfolding in front of their eyes. While the effects are plain to see – further unemployment, loss of life, property destruction – Jonathan Katzenellenbogen notes that other consequences are still to come. “This is an economic calamity for the country and there will be no easy recovery.” Not only has it undoubtedly hurt the economy, but it’s affected the vaccine rollout at a time when the country is in the midst of a deadly third wave. The author questions whether the events of the past few days will indeed change South African politics and perhaps be the turning point in our young democracy’s history. – Jarryd Neves

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen

The spate of rioting and looting that began at the weekend has to be a turning point. Never before in our post-1994 history has there been such large-scale lawlessness across the country.

Our deepest fears of a national breakdown have been elevated to a new level. The last time that happened was during the ghastly years of apartheid in the 1970s when the government cracked down and refused to take big steps toward reform.

Yesterday, the N3, the country’s main route from Johannesburg to eThekwini, was closed by rampaging mobs. That shows the government lost control.

One of the consequences of the upheaval is armed residents barricading their suburbs – a sure sign of how low trust in the state has sunk. Militias are bound to take on a more permanent role even after relative calm has been restored.

If people become almost entirely reliant on themselves for security, they will ask why they should pay taxes. Private security forces, which already employ a larger number than the police, will gain a further immense boost from the events of the past week. And with the inability of the police to adequately protect citizens and property, the ANC’s attempts at stricter gun control will be dead.

All this sets the scene for groups like the EFF and other political movements to come into the fray with their own forces, which has to raise the risk of further rounds of violence and danger to our political process.

The violence and looting of the past few days may soon run its course in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Mpumulanga, and North West, but it has a high chance of spreading to other provinces. Because the easy pickings here have now been looted, what is left is more difficult to grab. Troops on the streets with assault weapons, and freezing temperatures in Gauteng, will help deter the looters.

Terrible risks
But there are still terrible risks, should the violence not abate and highways re-open. The cut in the country’s major road arteries could disrupt food and medication deliveries and delay the roll-out of the vaccination programme, as President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his address to the nation on Monday evening.

This is an economic calamity for the country and there will be no easy recovery.

We still have little insight as to whether this wave of violence was organised by the allies of former president Jacob Zuma to raise pressure for his release from prison. Clearly there was a spark that unleashed lawlessness. Perhaps it was the result of massive frustration over the lockdowns, state failure in many areas, and lack of economic progress. When there is a breakdown in law, there is often looting.

It is far from clear that this is a universal case of the dispossessed seeking vengeance. There are videos of individuals trying to stuff TVs and other goods into smart cars, indicating sheer criminality that goes well beyond need. Videos of the Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg in flames, looters taking away a load of fridges on a forklift, and a bakkie laden with a large-screen TV show criminals at work.

The underinvestment in public-order policing has allowed the vacuum in law and order to grow. There are far too few police allocated to the public-order function and their kit is inadequate. Colonel David Peddle, who served as the Senior Staff Officer in the Defence Force for internal operations, says the recommendations for improved public policing after Marikana should have been implemented. Better public-order policing means saving lives and property.

Little has been done about some long-standing serious crime problems, like corruption, and this has certainly created conditions for the breakdown in public order. Over the past three years there have been periodic attacks on trucks near the Mooi River Plaza on the N3 in KwaZulu-Natal. The group targeting trucks claims that it is doing so to protest against the employment of foreign drivers, although they do not show much discrimination in their fire-bombing. At the weekend 33 trucks were destroyed in the Mooi River area, one of them a carrier with a full load of cars.

The cost to the economy comes in higher insurance rates and rises in transport costs due to reduced fleet capacity, and the deterrent effect of such attacks on investing in the industry.

Local mafias
Unrelated to the present wave of violence, but a highlight of the deteriorating security situation, was the killing of Nico Swart, general manager for operations at Rio Tinto’s Richards Bay Minerals, earlier this year. Local mafias increasingly make heavy demands on mines and construction projects to obtain jobs and payoffs. That makes for a very difficult business environment.

Railway tracks on large sections of the network have been lifted up and carted away as scrap. Stations have been destroyed by theft. Commuter trains on the Cape Town to Simonstown route are often gutted by fires. This destruction of key infrastructure has been going on for some time, but nothing is apparently done.

The scale and cost of the destruction of the past few days are unknown, but economic recovery after such flare-ups can take years. I lived in Washington DC from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s. After the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King in April 1968, the old downtown area and many of the predominantly black areas experienced six days of extreme rioting. Ten years later one could still see abandoned buildings, and it was clear that property developers and businesses had not returned in force. The swanky law firms and lobbyists moved into a more modern area of town and abandoned the old downtown. It was not really until the late 1980s and early 1990s that the downtown area saw a big revitalisation.

After mass looting, shop owners often move out. It is the locals, who can no longer buy their groceries around the corner, who suffer. The owners of the gutted Brookside Mall will collect a large insurance payout, but will it really make business sense to rebuild?

The events since Friday evening show that we are stuck in a terrible trap that will hobble the country’s longer-term recovery. This mass violence comes on top of an economic and political malaise marked by the long Covid-19 lockdowns, the high number of business closures, extraordinarily high unemployment, and the Eskom crisis.

Falls well short
Added to this is the absence of deep-seated economic reform, with privatisations and easing of labour laws, to kickstart the economy. What has been praised by some as reform falls well short of what is required. The transfer of SAA to a private equity group allows continued government control, and there are still restrictions on allowing independent power producers to build plants producing up to 100MW.

Will these events spark a big rethink, and change South African politics?

Business could try to bring that about, but it is unlikely the ANC will allow that to happen, as it prefers its own company.

Now the state must prove that it is at least capable of fully carrying out its basic function of upholding law and order. That means not only dealing with the current mess, but also the long-standing security issues about which it has done little. It also has to mean embarking on serious reform. It is unlikely that we are about to see a dramatic change in course from the ANC.

This article was first published on the IRR's online platform, the Daily Friend.

Jonathan Katzenellenbogen is a Johannesburg-based freelance financial journalist. His articles have appeared on DefenceWeb, Politicsweb, as well as in a number of overseas publications. Jonathan has also worked on Business Day and as a TV and radio reporter and newsreader.