The sparks that lit the tinderboxes


In the aftermath of the wanton destruction, looting and violence that played out across KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng in July 2021, numerous press statements, articles, webinar discussions and debates have been written and ideas aired. Jenny Grice highlights some of these.

It was author and researcher, Ziyanda Stuurman, speaking at a webinar organised by Wits University’s Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management who coined the term “tinderbox” to describe the July unrest, rather than the often quoted “ticking time bomb”. A “ticking time bomb” was “self-contained”, she said, while a tinderbox could “go off at any time” if it just got the right spark. And with so many “who feel like they’ve been left behind and uncared for by government” that spark was ever present.

Almost all the numerous articles, debates and discussions highlight inequality, poverty and unemployment as key sparks that lit the tinderboxes. A factionalised ANC, a corrupt state, and an economic system that excludes the vast majority, particularly the youth, served to fan the flames.

The July events affected different classes of people differently. Various trade unions and civil society organisations immediately released press statements largely denouncing the actions, with some spelling out how their members had been affected. (If your organisation’s press statement is not included here, please feel free to add here)

Informal street traders bemoaned the fact that the destruction of various shopping centres had inadvertently destroyed their members’ trading spaces cutting off their future income, while they foresaw inevitable price increases following.

As the extent of the destruction became clearer, there were calls for government to step in with immediate relief measures for the poor. The demand for a Basic Income Grant received renewed support with many organisations producing solid arguments backing their demands.

And then began the process by trade unions, NGOs (eg. ILRIG-WWMP), academics (eg. Wits University and MISTRA/GCRO) and journalists to unpack what really happened and come up with ways forward.

Conditions ripe for unrest

All the signs that could lead to the unrest were there, said Julia de Kadt from GCRO talking at the MISTRA/GCRO webinar. Data from their quality of life, longitudinal survey that they’ve been administering in Gauteng since 2009 show that in 2020 the percentage of households living on R1193 per month had climbed to 36% from 24% the year before. More alarming was the big jump in those households that lost income and were forced to live on less than R800 per month. Satisfaction with government at all levels – national, provincial and local – had dropped to all time lows.

Dangers of no working class organisation

Although the conditions were ripe for riots, organisation and vision during the unrest was lacking, said left-wing activist Mandy Moussouris at the ILRIG-WWMP webinar. “They were kneejerk responses to a dire situation… There was a complete lack of working class organisation…” And this was dangerous she warned. “If we are not organised, we create space for right-wing elements to step in…”

Effects of disorganisation

Busiswe Diko from shack dwellers’ organisation, Abahlali basemjondolo, gave her perspective from the ground. “Infrastructure was destroyed… the whole conflict is caused by Covid pandemic, not just Zuma sentence that caused people to be angry. Many people lost jobs because of pandemic and weren’t paid. Then people started turning against each other; there was confusion and anger. It’s very important that people don’t accept everything they see on social media before it’s verified, especially if it’s going to divide people. All progressive people need to make this very clear to members… in Phoenix many people were shot; [there were] vandalised shops, damaged people’s jobs – this looting again it caused racism, war – people fought against each other.”

Conflict resolution expert from African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (Accord), Vasu Gounden, a speaker in the MISTRA/GCRO webinar reflected on his experiences of the 1980s and early ‘90s. Himself a student activist at the time, who led thousands on the streets, the difference he said was that “we did have control over the people on the streets and we knew if we took people out, we knew when we could take people back.

“The problem with this recent thing is whoever organised it lost control by the 2nd day and that is an extremely serious challenge that we face in the country, the disintegration of political parties, the lack of political leadership at that level.”

Not only that but [in the July looting] although “there were poor who took to the streets and looted, there were also a lot of wealthy people who lined up to get the spoils. It shows a breakdown of our value system, and that is a very worrying factor.”

He also expressed concern that private citizens took up arms where the state failed to secure them.  Many other countries on the continent head towards civil war “because state authority and security broke down and if we are not able to pull that back and to reinstitute confidence in the state security apparatus and if we can’t rebuild that from police to justice, that will lead us into very, very dangerous territory.”

Looting and destruction well-orchestrated

The way in which the looting and destruction were carried out were a sign that it was well orchestrated said Wits academic, David Everatt, addressing the Wits webinar: “poor people do not attack community radio stations, reservoirs, electricity sub-stations and cellphone towers.”

And “yes,” he said, “it can very easily happen again. The vast majority of people remain poor, hungry and freezing.”

Need to address root causes of the unrest

“So many of our problems are not new,” said Stuurman, “they were there during the Zuma years, they’ve been there during Ramaphoria to a certain extent – if we are not going to strike at the heart of what causes this social unrest, that lies there in wait for instigators from a certain faction of the ANC or from another nefarious part of society, those triggers are going to stay there and they can be weaponised by someone else.”

Others pointed out that the problems could be traced back to colonial times and that unless these were addressed, chances of moving forward together were limited.

Dr Mbongiseni Buthelezi from PARI highlighted to the MISTRA/GCRO webinar the problems in traditional rural areas. The State had made things worse in those areas by giving “more and more unaccountable powers to traditional authorities.” And with mining companies moving into these areas, some traditional leaders were getting themselves onto boards of mining companies and extracting rents from their communities.

If rural communities called the police they were lucky to see them in 24 hours and this had exacerbated the rise of armed groups. “There is a gun culture in the midlands of KZN that we need to pay attention to,” he said.

What is to be done

“Selfless leaders” were needed,said Mohapi from Abahlali baseMjondolo.

“For the society to work, some people have to give up stuff, and that’s generally us, the white middle class that benefited so handsomely from the past,” Everatt.

The working class needs to reorganise, said Mandy Moussouris. “We need to look at how we rebuild communities… otherwise we end up where the working class is pitted against each other and those that rule us continue to do so.”

Working class organisations needed to “accompany the masses to build the necessary strength to wage present and future battles” echoed Ishmael Lesufi from the Covid19 Working Class Campaign (CWCC).

There must be social compacts said several contributors.

However, Nedlac’s Lisa Seftel warned that social compacts could only work if government was capable and if parties trusted it. In the aftermath of July 2021, government promised UIF relief for workers, it promised a website for business to register. “We tried to facilitate in Nedlac, but government had no capacity to deliver,” she said. Three months after July, only the website that businesses needed to register on for relief had been set up.

Three things have to be done for social compacts to succeed, said Gounden.

  • state capacity must be built
  • all initiatives to address endemic and systemic corruption and culture of corruption must be consolidated
  • mediation capacity must be built at community level to mitigate conflicts to create breathing space for transformation to take place.

“The incidents in July shocked the nation as it shocked the world,” said Gounden. “It’s not the first time; we’ve seen this on many, many occasions. The fundamental difference this time I think is if we don’t take steps to resolve or mitigate soon, it will lead us in the direction that we don’t want to go as SA.”

What is your view? What needs to be done to prevent a repeat of July 2021?

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Jenny Grice
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