When winter came
In the week of 7 July, winter came to South Africa with a vengeance, cold fronts bringing icy subpolar winds blew in, offering little respite. The events that followed chilled the nation.
Living in South Africa is like being on an emotional rollercoaster where you struggle not to be overwhelmed by societal dysfunctionalities, where a trip to the supermarket sees you run the gauntlet and gamut of emotions as you see poverty and inequality at every turn. Those feelings quickly change to intense feelings of guilt that you have and others not. Then comes the anger, following the realisation that if it weren’t for the African National Congress (ANC) government and the cronyism and corruption that flourished under Zuma and the Guptas (brothers from India who captured the state and made billions for themselves through their association with former President Jacob Zuma), enabled by the ANC’s misguided notion of cadre deployment, then perhaps things might have been better for the majority of South Africans.
So it is no wonder that when Jacob Zuma was found guilty of contempt of court (he steadfastly refused to attend the Zondo Commission on state capture, which he established and where testimony showed his involvement in the many instances of corruption that by conservative accounts caused over R500 billion to be syphoned off and out of the country) many were happy to celebrate his going to jail. It was only at about 11 pm on Wednesday 7 July, before he was to have been arrested for not handing himself, that Zuma slunk off to the Estcourt jail. In the lead up to his incarceration, there were protests by former members of the disbanded ANC armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association, in front of his house. Zuma’s telegenic son, Duduzane, a beneficiary of the Gupta’s largesse and recently seen in social media posts swanning around Dubai, was also protesting. These supporters also want to bring about rapid economic transformation (RET), which would end what they term as white monopoly capital (WMC). The concept was conceptualised by Bell-Pottinger Private (a former British public relations and reputation management company that went into administration due to the scandal caused by this campaign) to create tension between the races to make way for a redistribution of wealth and further state looting. The notion that WMC must fall is heavily supported by the Economic Freedom Front (EFF) party, whose leader Julius Malema has been identified in defrauding the VBS bank, which was to have provided grants to those in need. Interestingly, Malema, the then leader of the ANC youth leader, was a strong Zuma supporter. They fell out, and Malema was forced out of the ANC. He then founded the EFF with Floyd Shivambu. It was the EFF that chased out a BBC reporter when they didn’t like his questions. It is the EFF that hounds local reporters, threatening to rape and assault female reporters for investigating the party.
On 9 and 10 July, there were instances of trucks being set alight. A common occurrence in South Africa, where trucks, particularly those driven by foreign nationals, are often torched and looted. This relatively low level of protest action continued. By Sunday, the looting became more widespread and, by Monday, it was a full-on orgy of looting in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng where shopping centres were overrun, and the police stood by helplessly watching the events unfold.
Neighbourhood WhatsApp groups started to call for volunteers, not ‘Rambo vigilantes’, who would be happy to patrol the neighbourhoods together with private security firms if necessary. It became clear that certain suburbs in Durban were being targeted. The looting frenzy was not just a case of those in precarious circumstances and in dire need of food, like some children stealing clothes and the grannies stealing food. There were scenes of people looting giant TV sets, fridges and other goods, even expensive lounge furniture that would in no way fit into a tin shack. There were images of goods being loaded into a Mercedes Benz and other expensive vehicles. Quite clearly, something else was going on. Not only were the shops ransacked and buildings razed to the ground, but factories and warehouses were also being targeted.
These happenings were captured by courageous reporters wearing helmets and Kevlar vesting, gear usually associated with reporting for war-torn areas. Traditional media reported what was happening; social media was awash with misinformation. The government and the president were missing in action until Sunday night when President Cyril Ramaphosa was scheduled to talk to the nation about extending the Covid-19 lockdown for a further two weeks. He did mention the looting and seemed to infer that it was ethnically based, in other words, caused by Jacob Zuma’s Zulu supporters. The bizarre form of looting continued, and Cyril chatted again to us on the Monday night. There was mention of deploying 2500 members of the defence force, and this time he mentioned economic sabotage and insurrection and that there were 12 instigators. South Africans were amazed, especially as no details were provided apart from being told that national key points had been targeted as well.
Then, from about 13 July, there were instances where community members came together to defend the last mall in Soweto that had not been attacked, protect their communities, and protect other shopping malls. Soon after that, communities were told they should work with the police force and that more defence force members would be taking to the streets. All the while, Jacob Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla (Duduzane’s twin), was allegedly inciting people on Twitter and calling for more protest action. According to the Daily Maverick newspaper, other WhatsApp groups, with members from the ANC youth league, ANC and SA Youth Congress, were planning the attacks.
Then the Minister of Defence, Nosiviwe Noluthando Mapisa-Nqakula, said it wasn’t an insurrection. So, too, did the Minister of State Security, Ayando Dlodlo. Their statements directly contradicted the president. Then the Minister of the Police Bheki Cele, a former Jacob Zuma supporter, said that he had not received intelligence reports and had been unable to prepare the police. At this stage, it was quite clear that the people of South Africa were alone and that they could not rely on the police or the defence force. That Tuesday night was a long dark teatime of the soul (apologies to Douglas Adams) as people contemplated taking steps to protect their loved ones and their properties, with some apparently even trying to make homemade bombs. Dlodlo later changed her view and said that the justice cluster was looking into people formerly in the State Security Association and linked to Jacob Zuma. The fuel refineries declared a force majeure and stopped production to protect their facilities. Ports In Durban and KZN were closed, and other key points were protected, as was Judge Zondo’s (from the Zondo Commission) house. As supply chains, including medical and pharmacy, were affected, there was talk of fuel and other shortages. Almost immediately, various non-governmental agencies like the Gift of the Givers, who many say should be running the country, sprang into action. Donations of food, especially baby formula, clothing, medical supplies and animal feed, were flown to KZN. And into that vacuum sprang surprising knights in white chargers – the taxi drivers. Now, you must understand, taxi drivers in South Africa are a law unto themselves. They stop where they will for their passengers. They don’t stop at traffic lights, and they drive like crazy. However, now they became the champions in protecting the shops, business centres and factories. They reasoned that if people lost jobs because of looting and arson, their livelihoods would be affected.
The country came together and this year’s Mandela day on 18 July was particularly poignant as South Africans realised that they had to help themselves and those less fortunate, especially those in KZN. The trucking routes were opened, and trucks started transporting much-needed goods to KZN, bringing relief to those queueing in the few remaining shops. People from diverse communities came together to clean up the mess from the looting and try to get life back to normal.
Things began to calm down, and four people were arrested. One person who had been on the run even turned himself in but couldn’t be processed because the charges hadn’t been formalised. And in that calm, it became even more apparent that the damage wreaked by Zuma on state institutions during his time in office was even more severe than initially thought. The defence force and police services had been particularly hollowed out. The ministers were clearly incompetent. The funds to deploy the soldiers and police were insufficient. Ramaphosa’s cabinet is woefully inept, probably due to having to include some of Zuma’s supporters for him to stay in power. The ANC has prided itself on being a broad church, but it has now become too broad and too riven for it to hold. Its former general secretary, Gwede Mantashe, claimed at the Zondo Commission that the ANC is a non-profit organisation and therein lies its problem. The ANC is a political party and should define itself as one and identify what it stands for because now its stands for everything and nothing.
But from that long dark time on Tuesday 13 July, something positive came. The need to address the mass poverty and inadequate service delivery, especially as temperatures plummeted across the country, became urgent. At the next update with Cyril on 25 July, he advised that the lockdown would move to level 3, and people’s grants would be reinstated. Those who had lost jobs in the unrest would be eligible for unemployment insurance. Those who lost their businesses would either be paid out through insurance or other schemes, while there would be more developments for those in need. It was generally a positive message, including that over 6.3 million had been vaccinated at an average of 250,000 people a day and that vaccinations were opening for those aged 18 and above from 1 September and that we were now manufacturing vaccines for ourselves and the African continent from a factory in Gqeberha (formerly Port Elizabeth). Cyril also said that it was the people of South Africa who had come together to save the country. Of course, the defence force would remain, and there has been an increase in community policing forums. That Sunday, South Africans went to bed much happier than they’d been for a long time.
Monday 26 July, I went for a drive and discovered the vast number of small-medium enterprises that border Tembisa, one of the areas that was severely affected by the looting. On the other side of Tembisa, heading towards OR Tambo airport, are massive distribution warehouses by major logistics companies such as Kuhne & Nagel, DHL and DSV. Seeing these distribution centres and thinking about how the innovation of local supermarkets where you can order your groceries and get them delivered in 60 minutes, creating thousands of jobs, I realised once again that there is so much innovation and opportunity in South Africa. This spirit of innovation is complemented by the coming together of the South African people and their need to make the country succeed.
However, on Tuesday, 27 July, papers reported that the ports in KZN had declared a force majeure as they had been hacked. A report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change appeared in the Daily Maverick, where they identified 12 Twitter feeds related to the instigators of the unrest and the overlap with RET faction mentioned above. According to the report, a central account is active seven days a week, 21 hours a day and sends out an original tweet every seven minutes. The report further found that another account sends out 342 original content tweets every day, an average of one every three minutes. With this sort of internet activity, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the country and its democracy are indeed under attack. Whether this is purely due to ANC factionalism or whether there is something more to it is a matter of debate. Did I mention that our Deputy President went to Russia on 27 June for a routine medical check-up? He has been before in 2018 and 2015 after he was allegedly poisoned in 2014. Interestingly, it is reported in local media that the ANC integrity commission identified him as a person who had brought the party into disrepute after R35 billion in irregular expenditure incurred on his watch in Mpumalanga.
As of 29 July, Mabuza is still in Russia and people who tweeted incendiary tweets have not been arrested. South Africans are still waiting for all the instigators to be identified and charged. They’re also still waiting for decisive action to be taken by the president. Another factory in South Africa has been commissioned to produce more vaccines for the African continent. The number of people vaccinated is now 7.3 million.
One thing is for sure, living in South Africa is not only like being on a permanent rollercoaster, but it’s like living in a dystopian thriller, where the good guys are the average South Africans who come together and try to get on with their lives.