Bara Mall in Soweto is one of the many shopping centres that were ransacked in Johannesburg. Picture: Bhekikaya Mabaso, ANA
Bara Mall in Soweto is one of the many shopping centres that were ransacked in Johannesburg. Picture: Bhekikaya Mabaso, ANA

’Looting at the top sparked civil unrest’

By Manyane Manyane Time of article published Jul 30, 2021

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Leaders of the 1976 Soweto uprising believe the recent civil unrest, which saw shopping centres and warehouses being looted and public infrastructure destroyed in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, was caused by government's empty promises to the people who voted them into power.

Bara Mall in Soweto is one of the many shopping centres that were ransacked in Johannesburg. Picture: Bhekikaya Mabaso, ANA

Protests broke out over a week ago, a day after former president Jacob Zuma began serving his 15-months prison sentence for contempt of court after he refused to appear before the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.

The police raided the Boiketlong Informal Settlement in Sebokeng in search of looted goods. Picture: Bhekikhaya Mabaso, ANA

The protests quickly turned into looting as crowds raided shopping malls and warehouses, hauling anything and everything they could lay their hands on, including food, clothes and furniture, as the police stood by, seemingly powerless to act.

Activist and leader of the 1976 Soweto uprising Seth Mazibuko. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

This sparked an uproar from many sectors of society who decried police inaction and poor intelligence in stopping the violent, chaotic scenes before they even happened. This saw the deployment of over 25 000 national defence forces to assist the police to restore law and order in the unrest hotspots in the two provinces.

By Friday, at least 337 people had died as a result of the unrest, and a few of the12 suspected instigators were put behind bars. Meanwhile, the unrest has drawn mixed reactions from ordinary people to commentators, with some calling it an act of criminality while others said it was fuelled by poverty and unemployment.

Activist and leader of the 1976 Soweto uprising Seth Mazibuko said what the country witnessed was a cry for help from people who lived in extreme poverty. Mazibuko said it was painful to see the country burning under democratic rule.

“These are the people who saw their leaders getting richer while they continue to suffer... The leaders' children being awarded tenders while the poor are getting bullets for fighting under the #FeesMustFall banner.

“What we are seeing are factions using the socio and economic conditions of the poor to fight each other. The very conditions they have created so as to be used when they are fighting,” said Mazibuko, lamenting political leaders' absence during the unrest.

“I bleed when I see some of the fires of 1976 still burning in the so-called democracy. The fires that students of 1976 used to fight during apartheid are still used to fight our own. This means there is something that is not right with our own.

“What is more painful is that black people are still the ones being killed, arrested and running around fighting against each other to protect the crumbs coming from our masters' tables. This is happening under the watch of the black government.”

He said corruption in government also fuelled anger among the poor.

“What sparked this fire is the case about looting and leaders that are busy in the courts and in commissions instead of running the country, creating decent jobs and building houses for the poor.

"Many of those in the streets have no tenders, land and businesses to protect. They were made to protect the businesses of those who are in power. The poor were and are still only used as shields in the fight for bigger looting. The poor will remain job seekers and depend on the rich,” he said.

Mazibuko went on to say they have been pleading with government officials to prioritise the people since the ANC took power in 1994, but this has fallen on deaf ears.

“After 1994, some of us have been pleading with our leaders in government not to leave the people behind and rush to become members of Parliament or be part of BEE (Black Economic Empowerment). We always asked them to actively give the power of parliament to the people and not to their pockets. We asked them to give economic empowerment to the poor.”

He added: “Government was caught napping on this one because the leaders are not where the people are. Look at how our train stations are. They are not protected because our leaders and their families do not use them anymore. They are using their Porsche cars while their children use the Gautrain.

"Look at how our school grounds and buildings are. Our leaders' children do not use them, except for elections. The only businesses that our leaders are supporting in the townships are bottle stores, clubs and restaurants,” Mazibuko said.

Mazibuko’s sentiments were echoed by another 1976 student activist, Thabo Ndabeni, who said the current system of parliamentary representation had created a disconnect between public officials and citizens.

“A constituency-based form of representation forces the individual elected to be with the people who elected them. A situation of mutual accountability exists in that relationship. In the current system, strangers go and address people they don’t know if they do attempt to talk to the aggrieved communities.”

“At local government level, the councillors' credibility has long been eroded by their inability to resolve immediate issues such as the provision of electricity and general services. Councillors are unable to deal with Eskom on behalf of communities. That is why you see community delegations approaching Eskom by themselves,” said Ndabeni.

He added: “The current instability needs to be managed, and looting is not the answer. But what do you say to a hungry mother who has nothing to feed her children? This contrasted with the crass looting of state resources by politicians.”

Ndabeni went on to say divisions at the top also drove civil unrest. “We are reaping the consequences of the divisions within the ruling party,” he said.

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