July 14, 2021


SOUTH AFRICA: License to loot or higher degree of coordination?

BY Anne Frühauf

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( 5 mins)
  • The #FreeZuma unrest has wreaked widespread destruction, first and foremost in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province.
  • For now, KZN remains in critical condition, though in Gauteng and elsewhere the unrest appears to be subsiding.
  • Key signals to watch over the coming days will be: 1) the spread of disturbances and the security response; 2) any declaration of a state of emergency; and 3) the Constitutional Court’s forthcoming decision on ex-president Jacob Zuma’s recission application (probably next week).

Counting the costs

The extent of the destruction wreaked by the #FreeZuma and #shutdown unrest is unprecedented in the post-apartheid era and makes the 2008 xenophobic riots pale in comparison. At the latest count, 72 people had died and the destruction of assets, “industrial-scale” looting and disruption of supply lines has been nearly unprecedented. They have brought KZN to a near- standstill, with transport halted, and fuel and food shortages reported. Oxygen and medical personnel are in short supply at KZN hospitals at a critical point in the third pandemic wave, while vaccinations have virtually ground to a halt.

From South Africa’s largest business to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), many sectors of the economy have been hard hit, nowhere more so than in KZN. Malls, retailers like Mr Price and Shoprite, and pharmacies like Clicks have had hundreds of stores, warehouses and distribution centers looted or torched. Logistics operations have been badly hit, with trucks looted and torched, particularly on the N3 highway connecting Johannesburg and Durban. In the beverage sector, South African Breweries has had two breweries looted and set alight in KZN; a Heineken warehouse was reportedly ransacked. In the agricultural sector, sugar mills and some sugar crops have been destroyed; for perishable export goods (e.g. citrus) usually shipped out via Durban port, supply chains have been severely disrupted. More than 100 telecoms base stations have been destroyed, as well as petrol stations, blood banks, clinics and even a water treatment plant. South African Petroleum Refineries (Sapref), which is owned by Shell Refining SA and BP Southern Africa and supplies about 35% of South Africa’s fuel needs, declared force majeure on 13 July. While the true cost of the disturbances will take time to assess, the state-owned insurer SA Special Risks Insurance Association (Sasria) is bracing for massive claims.

Weak security response

Amidst the mayhem, the security response has been wholly insufficient to date. The National Joint Operational Intelligence Structure – comprising the South Africa Police Service (SAPS), the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and crime intelligence – failed to respond quickly, likely contributing to the spread of unrest, looting and arson. SAPS in particular has been overstretched, ineffective, or entirely absent, particularly in KZN and parts of Gauteng. This will raise long-term questions about the need for security sector reform and the wisdom of long-term budget cuts.

License to loot or higher degree of coordination?

The Zuma factor has likely represented a trigger, rather than the real reason, for most people participating in opportunistic looting sprees, which can largely be attributed to desperate socio-economic conditions. Yet, beyond incendiary social media messages from hardcore Zuma allies, there is growing concern about a higher level of coordination behind the scenes and strategic targeting, for instance of critical infrastructure. Some 12 people are reportedly under investigation. This might include Thulani Dlomo, former head of the State Security Agency’s (SSA) special operations unit, which witnesses at the Zondo commission earlier this year described as “a law unto itself” and a private militia that “directly served the political interests of the executive” (i.e. then-president Zuma).

This level of organization could explain why attacks on infrastructure and logistics routes in KZN appear more strategic and less opportunistic than elsewhere, and might come to be characterized as’economic sabotage’ or even outright’terrorism’. It might also explain why the violence could be quicker to wane in the rest of South Africa than in KZN, as elsewhere there appears to be less systematic coordination, less pronounced divisions within local African National Congress (ANC) structures and possibly SAPS, and seemingly growing public opposition to looting.

Signposts to watch

Security situation: SANDF troops were deployed only from 12 July (the

shutdown in KZN began on 9 July) and only in the thousands rather than tens

of thousands. In the absence of law enforcement, local workers, residents and taxi associations are now organizing to protect malls and neighborhoods in various areas across Gauteng and other provinces (which are on high alert but mostly calm). However, some vigilantism associated with taxi mafias or local residents could prove deadly or fan racial tensions, rather than improve law and order.

State of emergency: While calls for a state of emergency are growing louder, Ramaphosa will try to avoid this at all costs. South Africa is already under a ‘state of disaster’ owing to the pandemic, but an outright state of emergency would be unprecedented post-1994. It would bear huge risks for Ramaphosa. For one, it would be a political victory for Zuma’s allies (and other opponents), which would accuse Ramaphosa of apartheid-style repression. It might also be a risky security strategy if the security forces cannot enforce such an emergency or if such efforts turned into a bloodbath.

Constitutional Court: A fresh flashpoint for tensions will be the day when the Constitutional Court has to hand down its decision on Zuma’s recission application. This seems likely to happen next week and the court is widely expected to uphold its prior ruling.

Political solution: Zuma allies have called for a “political solution,” i.e. to trade the ex-president’s freedom for peace. Clearly this is an impossible ask in the context of the ongoing, independent court process. However, the presidency may undertake broader political consultations to address some grievances underpinning the unrest – a near impossible task given how tied his hands are, fiscally speaking.

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