The heritage of looting

My 27th birthday, this year, like last year’s 26th, was spent under lockdown. Unlike last year, however, the lockdown under which I found myself extended further than that related to the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, I was barricaded within the confines of my neighborhood as part of my community’s response to the July unrest which transpired in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

In July 2021, South Africa experienced the worst bout of politically motivated uprisings since the advent of democracy. What began as a semi-peaceful demonstration outside the homestead of the former president, Jacob Zuma, quickly spiraled out of control, into all-out looting, arson, vandalism, and violence parade.

According to reports, the week of riots in South Africa could cost the country ZAR 50 billion in lost output, while approximately 150 000 jobs have been put at risk. Further casualties came in the form of approximately 150 000 informal traders and 40 000 businesses, 1 400 ATMs, 100 malls, 11 warehouses, and eight factories.[1] By July 18 it was reported that 3407 arrests were made and by August 3 it was reported that 342 lives were lost.[2],[3]

Although these actions were, initially, termed the “Free Zuma Protest”, it became apparent that additional elements were at play – those outside the strict realm of Zuma’s support base. We have since been informed that the unrests were part of an attempt to derail the state, orchestrated by a well-oiled machine that took advantage of the country’s constitution, made use of our nation’s criminal elements, and leveraged the desperation of the impoverished.[4]

While the meaningless destruction of property, intimidation of people, and incitement of violence cannot be excused, one would find themselves at a moral crossroad if they were to group together the poverty-stricken looters with the criminal elements behind July’s rampage. Undoubtedly, such a crossroad would arise when one considers that the participation of the desperate in the heinous activities, which led to the costs described above, could very well have been a side-effect of looting at a higher level – looting of the state.

It was this notion that quelled the disappointment of a birthday spent under an even harder lockdown than that imposed by the government. I found myself asking the question, how much anger could I have toward impoverished looters when the country’s (former) health minister, during a global health crisis, in a country with the deepest of inequalities, was found to have channeled ZAR 150 million of department funds to his cronies from which his family was shown to have benefitted or when a former member of the National Health Laboratory Services (NHLS) recently appeared in court for tender fraud?[5],[6] The answer was that I couldn’t hold any anger. Why? Because the actions of the impoverished looters were merely a reaction to the actions of some of our leaders.

This brings me to my conclusion. As we prepare to celebrate our 27th Heritage Day as a democratic nation, we must remember that among the brilliant myriad of cultures in South Africa, there exists a few which we are better off without. In this regard, that is a culture of corruption and heritage of looting.


[1] S’thembile Cele and Leah Wilson, ‘South Africa economy set to take $3.4 billion hit from riots’, Bloomberg,  https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-07-20/south-african-economy-set-to-take-3-4-billion-hit-from-riots

[2] Kyle Zeeman, ‘Three alleged instigators of violent unrest arrested and expected in court this week’, Timeslive, July 18, 2021, https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/2021-07-18-three-alleged-instigators-of-violent-unrest-arrested-and-expected-in-court-this-week/.

[3] Paddy Harper, ‘Phoenix killings: 22 suspects held’, Mail and Guardian, August 3, 2021, https://mg.co.za/news/2021-08-03-phoenix-killings-22-suspects-held/.

[4] Andrew Harding, ‘South Africa riots: The inside story of Durban’s week of anarchy’, BBC News, July 29, 2021,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-57996373.

[5]Pieter-Louis Myburgh, ‘SIU flags ‘corrupt’ payment into Department of Health staffer’s bank account’, Daily Maverick, September 14, 2021, https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2021-09-14-siu-flags-corrupt-payment-into-department-of-health-staffers-bank-account/

[6] ‘Former NHLS CEO charged in R113 million tender fraud case,’ SABC News, September 6, 2021, https://www.sabcnews.com/sabcnews/former-nhls-ceo-charged-in-r113-million-tender-fraud-case/.

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