DURBAN - A RESEARCHER says South Africa needs to undertake some introspection about the current state of social cohesion in the country given the type and manner of protest witnessed – and both the government and society must decide whether they wish to take raiding of shops and businesses seriously.
Dr Vanya Gastrow, a research associate at the Centre for Law and Society, University of Cape Town, presented her draft titled, Template for trauma: Today’s looting has its roots in xenophobic violence of the past, at the National Migration and Urbanisation Conference held virtually in Johannesburg on Tuesday.
Two weeks ago KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng witnessed unrest, looting and violence. The destruction and looting recorded included 89 malls and shopping centres; one hospital; 45 warehouses; 22 factories; eight banks; 88 ATMs; 89 liquor outlets; eight liquor distributors; 37 trucks burnt and 139 schools vandalised.
Gastrow said while watching news footage of a warehouse being looted in Durban she realised she was watching footage of an insurrection and had not seen a single person marching, or hoisting a poster or banner.
Gastrow said people with political or socio-economic grievances had many different means of voicing their discontent. Looting and torching of businesses was also a method through which people demonstrate discontent against a government or political leadership.
“The more I thought about it, raiding and destroying shops and businesses is more a characteristic of what is often termed a ‘pogrom’, an outbreak of violence directed at minority ethnic groups, than of protest movements against the state or party factions.”
She said analysts have put forward numerous reasons to explain the unrest that erupted in the aftermath of former president Jacob Zuma’s incarceration. These range from ANC factionalism and poor policing to poverty and economic inequality. However, these reasons do not explain why the violence took the specific form and manner it did. She said looting and destruction, also related to service delivery, as a form of protest in the country is nothing new.
“These attacks have disproportionately affected foreign-owned small businesses since the early 2000s. It was ignorant to think that the violence, terror and unconstrained bigotry that have been allowed to flourish in the country over the past decade would not come back to haunt us all.
“I propose that the damage to property had its roots to a large extent in persistent xenophobic riots in the country over many years. This time large SA enterprises were targeted.”
Had the state utilised the past decade or more to craft means to effectively clamp down on xenophobic looting; the violent destruction of private property would most probably not have reached the scale it did, or could even have been averted, she said.
Louise Edwards, the director of programmes and research at the African Policing Civilian Oversight Forum (Apcof), based in Cape Town spoke of policing xenophobic violence in SA.
Edwards said there was a lack of an early warning system and operationally the police were not equipped to deal with public violence. “We saw the SAPS removing foreign nationals from communities as a strategy to address violence. That is assisting the perpetrators to achieve their aim to cleanse communities of foreign nationals.”