SA unrest: How defiance and protest morphed into violence

By Opinion Time of article published Jul 17, 2021

Share this article:

By Professor Dirk Kotzé

The past was a dramatic example of social dynamics transforming from protest, assertive but relatively peaceful, to violence and ending in opportunistic looting. This is not a unique case and it is not happening only in South Africa.

Demonstrations are constitutionally protected so long as they remain peaceful. As a form of public mobilisation of support, demonstrations are meant to communicate a message and to convince the public that they enjoy substantial support. They are not only political but can also be religious in nature, or cultural or involve trade unions which demonstrate their power in public.

The genesis of the latest situation is directly linked to the stand-off at Nkandla where former president Jacob Zuma public stance was one of defiance of the Constitutional Court judgement for his incarceration. That defiance was imposed on the MK Military Veterans’ Association which openly challenged the constitutional authority of the national police. That spilled over onto the AmaButho who added a public demonstration of traditional power. The combination of Zuma’s, the MKMVA’s and the AmaButho’s defiance and claim to monopolise control over that area, in the face of also defying the lockdown regulations, exposed the SAPS as incapable to enforcing the law. The events later in the week, especially the looting of shops in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and nonchalant behaviour of looters, can most possibly be ascribed to the situation at Nkandla. The national police lost its authority there and could not regain it in the public eye later in the week.

President Ramaphosa referred in his speeches to ethnic mobilisation as one of the causes of the mayhem. It did start at Nkandla, it did involve the AmaButho and initially it happened only in KwaZulu-Natal. After Zuma’s incarceration the focus moved to the Estcourt prison and thereafter spread across the main roads in the province. Politicised culture in the form of ethno-nationalism is a powerful but very dangerous mobiliser of public support. It is difficult to control and can spread like wildfire. The crossover between KwaZulu-Natal inhabitants who are working in Gauteng, caused a seamless extension of the violence across the provinces.

It is undeniable that these actions have had a political origin but over time it lost that and morphed into violence for its own purpose, and the undeterred violence enabled the dynamics to mutate into greed and looting with no political association.

These dynamics are well known and were present in many high-profile cases of political demonstrations which over time developed a strong criminal or opportunistic character. France, Germany and the USA have experienced such cases, which makes the current situation in South Africa not unique.

An important part of the explanation for this regression in the South African case is that fact that a public realisation emerged that the police are either unable or unwilling to exert their authority, already as early as the Nkandla events. Any society is premised on the existence of public authority which is effective and which serves as a deterrent against people who attempt to exert their own power and for their own benefit. Once a vacuum emerges or some weakness is detected, opportunistic persons will immediately exploit that gap for their own benefit. This happened when the highways were blocked and trucks burnt. In the absence of any immediate security or policing response to it, the next and more daring step was when looting of shops commenced.

Some may present this as a political message against “white monopoly capital”. Yet, some of the hardest hit shopping centres are also in townships. It is therefore not really a choice between a political agenda versus greed or opportunistic self-satisfaction. One of the optic indicators of this change in the nature of the events is when the participants changed from those wearing ANC-regalia to persons in nondescript T-shirts and jeans, and from older persons to much younger ones. The psychology of looting has received a lot of scientific attention and should be used also in this situation.

What are the lessons learnt from this? Political demonstrations and those motivated by socio-economic grievances can continue for some time and is more sustainable than opportunistic violence and looting. Dialogue is a means of dealing with political motivations but it does not apply to looting and violence.

For looting to stop, a demonstration of authority is required, with the message that the authorities have reclaimed their power and that the vacuum does not exist anymore. Use of the military for this purpose could be very effective, such as when a Casspir personnel carrier appears on the scene with its intimidating presence. Then the balance of power has changed.

Public perceptions are the key determinants of how such situations unfold. Can former president Zuma claim that these are the dire consequences of the decisions by the Constitutional Court and Zondo Commission against him? Is this the influence he has to cause disruption? It is unlikely that he will claim the looters as his supporters.

* Professor Dirk Kotze is from the Department of Political Science at Unisa.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

Share this article: