By Imraan Buccus
The enormity of the chaos and violence that gripped Durban and other towns in KwaZulu-Natal in July is still sinking in. The death toll keeps rising, and the evidence that is coming in about the brutality of the vigilante killings is more and more sickening.
There is clarity about many aspects of what happened. We know that the unrest was triggered by small groups of well organised pro-Zuma forces acting from within the ANC. We know that the bread riots over the first two days of the unrest were a result of endemic hunger and deprivation and were not linked to support for Zuma in any significant way. The general looting that followed was mostly a matter of opportunism but there was also participation by organised crime and the pro-Zuma forces did open up key infrastructure to general looters. We also know that during the chaos the pro-Zuma forces targeted infrastructure with military precision.
We don’t yet know how the bulk of the people who died lost their lives, or exactly how widespread the support for the attacks on infrastructure was in the KwaZulu-Natal ANC. We also don’t know how much of the racial incitement on social media was planned, and how much was spontaneous.
But some clear conclusions can be drawn already. We know that the levels of unemployment, hunger, and general deprivation are not sustainable and if they were not addressed there will be another social explosion in due course. We know that there is a significant chunk of the ANC, and its associated tenderprenuers in this province that is willing to engage in violence, and even treason, to protect its access to easy money. We also know that neither the police nor the political leadership in the province seem willing to act against these people.
The best way forward for the state will have to take three forms. One is the swift arrest and prosecution of as many of the organisers of the campaign of sabotage as is possible, as well as those responsible for the vigilante killings. Another is a wholesale clean out of the provincial ANC with the expulsion, from top to bottom, of everyone who can be shown to have been part of, or in support of, the attacks on infrastructure. The third component of a strategy for a way forward must be a massive programme of social support for the large numbers of people who are unemployed and have been suffering from hunger throughout the Covid period.
However, we cannot only look to the state to shepherd us through this crisis. We also need to examine the role that society itself can play as we try and rebuild some sort of social cohesion. Many of the positions that need to be taken are clear. For instance, we must simultaneously demand that those responsible for vigilante killings be brought to justice and that racial incitement is opposed.
But positions without any kind of real popular support are just words. One of the worrying aspects of how the crisis played out is the almost complete absence of leadership. The ANC in the province was mostly silent, apart from a few bland statements in support of Zuma. There was also a deafening silence from the trade unions.
The unions were such a powerful progressive force in the 1980s and among older people there is often nostalgia for those days. But while many unions continue to do important work around opposing retrenchments and fighting for a living wage they are no longer able to give leadership to society. The last time that they did so was when, acting in a secondary role, they supported the Treatment Action Campaign in the struggle for access to lifesaving medication in the public healthcare system.
In the July crisis, and its aftermath, the leadership that was given came from grassroots community organisations. The Phoenix Residents and Tenants Association acquitted itself well in opposing racism and vigilantism, and working to build solidarity. Abahlali baseMjondolo also took carefully considered progressive positions after consultation with its members. If the unions are in the sunset of their capacity to give leadership to society it seems that the future lies with the progressive grassroots organisations, and that this is where we need to build for the years to come.
Dr Imraan Buccus is Al Qalam editor and Research Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at UKZN.