Many readers know first-hand of ‘ethnic cleansing’ – a term that is no stranger in the African context too. Rwanda comes to mind first, known for the genocide between two ethnic groups that took the lives of 1 million souls. Sri Lanka’s ethnic wars stay strong in our minds. As I’ve mentioned in previous writings, South Africa is complex because of the diversity of racial, ethnic, and language groups. This complexity is the main reason why it is difficult to pinpoint the cause and effect. Most often, what results from clashes between two opposing groups is that they find factors of difference and zoom in on what perceives one group as superior and the other inferior. In South Africa the most obvious default is race. In other clashes, it becomes ethnic groups within the same race category.
In 1976 the town of Phoenix was set up as a township for those South Africans of Indian and Tamil origin and owing to the Group Areas Act – you were relocated to and lived in an area allocated based on your race classification. Those architects used what is now termed – spatial planning. The poorest and economically marginalized were the black community who were placed at the outer perimeter, closer was the mixed-race/coloured and Indian communities and the closest to urban and metropolis areas were the white racial groups. Post-apartheid, the country has done very little to fix spatial planning where most of the previously disadvantaged groups spend most of their monies on commute.
During the events of July, this mainly South African of Indian origin area was caught in a crossfire. Community Policing Forums were set up to protect their shops and malls from being looted and, in turn, the clash with the mob of looters resulted in some loss of life. Not just that, there was criminal intent and it resulted in some horrible incidents of damage to innocent people’s property and person based on racial classification – some blacks who were passing through were labeled as looters and there were criminal activities against them. The perpetrators were arrested last week, and bail hearings have been held. These incidents heightened racial tensions and there are many organisations working tirelessly to mitigate the issues. The main problem is that the black community are outraged at the entire South African Indian community over these acts, and not angry at those criminal elements specifically – as we all know, every society and community have their own criminal elements. Sadly, social media once again plays its role in heightening tensions. Make no mistake, there were opportunistic South African Indians who also found opportunities to loot – these were caught on camera. The communities shamed them in their own ways. The socioeconomic reasons aside, my race community owns up to its own criminality in this entire saga. There are perpetrators on both sides of the proverbial fence. My friend from Phoenix shared with me that she has insomnia and post-traumatic stress where every little noise is a trigger. I cannot imagine what she is going through. Other family and friends from other parts of KwaZulu-Natal face similar issues – everyone whom I have connected with is dealing with some or other trauma.
To bring you back to the looting incidents… there are mixed messages coming from heads of state but the little we can discern from the media coverage goes like this:
a) There was a group of insurgents (government and civil) who banded together to topple the country’s main sources of infrastructure.
b) The government was pre-warned but not adequately prepared and they admit that they went to the main historical and infrastructure sites as a priority.
c) Under the FreeZuma campaign, these insurgents used social media to mobilize marginalised communities who are already under threat from the pandemic to loot.
d) These groups barged into areas that they do not live in, to access shops and malls and clashed with Community Policing Forums as the police service was not adequate.
e) The army was deployed after it was deemed – too late, and at first, they were not nearly enough in numbers but later the government deployed 25, 000 to keep peace
f) Racial tensions heightened with fake news and mainstream media playing into the sensational narratives. Race has been an issue in the country and continues to play a role but intervention is required as a matter of urgency to get community groups speaking.
g) The pandemic, state capture of government resources, unemployment and poverty are all contributing factors.
h) A few, not all, of the insurgents have been arrested for inciting violence but the news is mum on their individual updates.
i) Over 3, 400 looters were arrested and face criminal charges with permanent criminal records
j) The police and the army are trying to recover stolen goods
k) Law enforcement is totally inadequate to deal with insurrections without breaking the constitution – the country cannot have another massacre on its hands due as we have had far too many of these in our history.
l) The estimated loss to the GDP is ZAR50 billion (approximately USD3,4 billion).
m) The death toll from the insurrection is just shy of 300.
Scenes from the destruction
I watched in tears as some of the mainstream media houses interviewed the looters. Some of the older women knew that what they were doing was wrong, but the one lady said that she needed to feed her grandchildren and had no choice…hungry people are desperate people. Other failings of mainstream media were that the message shared was biased – each media house was featuring a different version of the live events. This begs the question: what is accurate news and what is fake news? In my opinion, the government that liberated South Africa from apartheid was the African National Congress (ANC). They have lost their way and their governance has been filled with state resource looting and corruption. There is no adequate opposition party that is fit to rule this country. Our sitting president is very capable, but he inherited a corrupt government, a pandemic, and now an insurrection. Also, he is tied into the constitution of the ANC which does not allow one person to lead the party but a team of six. That is how the former president managed his looting of state resources – he surrounded himself with like-minded individuals.
The near future looks bleak for many of those who have lost businesses and employment, and we have an unenviable amount of work to do to rebuild both infrastructure and people’s spirits. South Africans are resilient. Hours and days later communities from all backgrounds banded together on clean-up operations. We have natural beauty and resources that are unmatched. Our people (bar looters and insurrection culprits) are our strength. We love our country and all its diversity and every single person I have connected with believes that we will be ok…it is only a matter of time.
I also want to highlight that South Africa is in its third wave in the pandemic. In the past month, I have watched so many families lose their loved ones. Children are orphaned, parents are burying all their children, women are being widowed – this past week four people I know have lost their lives to covid. People are moving from one crisis to the next and the best we can do is be available to those in our network. South Africans abroad can pipe down the narrative of ‘I’m glad I left when I did' because it helps no one. Our country’s people love each other and the chaos around us is not a natural state of being.