Building a new world begins with ending austerity

There are parallels between what happened in 1990 Trinidad and 2021 South Africa. The eruption that manifested itself in looting and other forms is merely a symptom of deeper structural problems.

On 27 July 1990, my cousin and I set out for the movies. We never made it.

At nine and 13 years old, we jaunted around Town – as Trinidad’s city centre, Port of Spain, is called – and the malls of the more affluent suburbs west of it. I don’t remember why we went into an actual cinema. Was it that my cousin was trying to meet up with someone? Or that we missed the start times as we traipsed from one mall to the next in minibus and p-car (private sedan) taxis unable to virtually check times and choices in the days before cellphones? I’m not sure, but more than 30 years later those days stay with me. They return at different points in time for different reasons. 

But all are tied to what we learned from the TV that night – that Trinidad and Tobago was in the midst of a coup d’etat. We’d seen signs of the coup on our way back to my aunt’s house “up de Hill” (Laventille), as the mostly Black and impoverished cluster of neighbourhoods on the hills around Town are called. My older brother was at our grandparents’ in another part of Laventille and I was at my aunt’s; we’d been sent to Trinidad from New York for school holidays. In the midst of South Africa’s 2021 unrest, as I struggled to explain what unfolded in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, I have gone back to those times.

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That 1990 July afternoon, a homeless “mad woman” pushed into our minibus taxi in Town to shout that the Red House, where Trinidad’s Parliament sat, was on fire. She was quickly dismissed by the taxi’s passengers and her words put down as the rantings of a mad woman. Her shouts were the first clues that something was amiss, but there were other signs too. There was the absence of taxis going up de Hill; we’d decided to walk down into town that day so that we could catch a taxi home and avoid the trek up de Hill. 

There was an eerie, still silence as we ascended Laventille Road. Always bustling with people and cars, music and car horns blaring, that afternoon it was still, no cars going up or down. Only the occasional older woman with goods on her head and us, irritated by the blazing sun and our failed excursion, self-absorbed the way youth within a bubble of relative comfort often are. 

We got home to loadshedding and no water in the taps. By now I was tired of being away from my parents and away from the certainty of electricity, flowing water and television. When electricity did return, the TV only showed us white and black fuzz that barked – nothing to watch. And, as the sun set, we began to worry; my aunt hadn’t yet returned from a soccer match at the stadium. 

Then the TV finally showed us a picture. The 7 o’clock news anchor seated with an AK47 to his back. Seated next to him was Yasin Abu Bakr, leader of the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a Black power radical Islamist group reminiscent of the US Nation of Islam. “Remain calm,” Abu Bakr told us, “the Muslimeen is now in control of the government.” The prime minister, Arthur Napoleon Raymond Robinson, several members of his cabinet and members of the opposition were being held hostage in the Red House. 

‘Why are people doing this?’

My aunt eventually returned home. Laventille remained quiet that night, but by the next night the looting began. 

We watched a pregnant woman walk up de Hill with an eight-seater dining table and chairs on her back. Another woman came the next day to ask my aunt to show her how to operate the TV that she’d acquired in the night’s haul. I remember my aunt patiently explaining that it would never work as a TV; it was a microwave. Powdered milk and baby formula were looted too. 

Sitting in South Africa in another July – this time winter and not a humid rainy season – I tell my daughter these things, trying to help her make sense of who she is, where she is from and how the streets of South Africa have come to resemble the streets of my childhood. She’s a proudly South African middle-class preteen, part Zulu and part West Indian. She’s looked on as parts of the countryside that she has travelled since she was a few months old, that are her heritage, were ravaged. That people who share her gogo’s gait carried tinned goods on their heads was perhaps too close to home. I watch as she struggles to make sense of it all. “Why?” she asked me. “Why are people doing this?”

31 March 2020: A general view of shacks in Umlazi, Durban, during a nationwide 21-day Covid-19 lockdown. (Photograph by Rogan Ward/ Reuters)

I share with her these recollections from my own childhood, when I was only a year or two younger than she is now. I tell these to her to try to imprint onto her the ways in which profound and extreme inequality shapes a society. I want her to realise that some people loot because they’ve been denied a horizon to which to aspire. Hunger and the inability to grasp a future that will enable you or your children to transcend your current circumstances, sometimes more than hunger, can make looting not only attractive, but the option. How much of a deterrent is jail for someone without three square meals a day when jail means the state is required to feed you?

My daughter balks at this. “You,” I tell her, “you have options.” She quickly retorts, “But mom, everyone has options. In each moment we always have a choice in how we act or react,” she tells me, throwing my own words back at me like well-aimed daggers. How we come to cling to the very things we challenged, but that is a story for another time. You’re trying to walk a line here, I remind myself; she has to cultivate her own tools for understanding the world and I don’t want to stomp on her rebellious streak – she will need it. Yet I also want to help her see that we could, any of us, have made the choice to loot given the right nudge. Out of hunger, desperation, lack of hope, an entrepreneurial spirit thwarted by circumstance, peer pressure, immediate food insecurity, revenge, malice and even boredom.

What informs our response? 

The TV news coverage, in the main, and our legalistic response have attempted to understand and prosecute the looting and the riots as signs of individual character flaws. We search looters’ and rioters’ individual moral or ethical compass and find them wanting. Yet these are individual choices made within a system that is unethical and unjust in its design. How do we prosecute individuals for a so-called personal character flaw that is in fact the byproduct of a woefully compromised political and economic system in which court victories are needed to secure proper toilets and adequate feeding programmes for school children? For the average looter who wasn’t involved in a concerted counter-revolutionary campaign against the government, will there be amnesty?

Most of the people who looted in 1990 Trinidad weren’t bad, evil people. They were church-going folk. They were mothers and grandmothers. They were friends. Some had jobs, some did not. They were aunties who fed the neighborhood’s children. They were young boys who were bored. They were men and women who had been failed by the education system that cast you as dumb if you learned differently or came from a poor family. Many were not supportive of Yasin Abu Bakr’s vision of an Islamist state. Some hadn’t known much of him before that fateful day. Their looting was not in his name. Rather his name and his actions provided an occasion for those rendered expendable by the system to access material goods and therein a quality of life that was otherwise inaccessible to them under the regime of post-independence rainbow nationalism.

South Africa is its own place with its own unique makeup. But the people who participated in looting in the weeks before we celebrated Nelson Mandela’s birthday in 2021 are not bad, evil people either. Most did not loot in the name of Jacob Zuma or against his incarceration. While Zuma has always had a constituency of genuine supporters, he has also always been a vehicle for popular dissent to a political and socio-economic elite that benefited from postapartheid rainbow nationalism. At times, Zuma has been a vessel for a peri-urban, rural masculinity that felt (and continues to feel) adrift and forsaken in the new South Africa, other times a symbol of poor people’s retaliation against middle- and upper-class disdain and respectability. 

‘Symptoms of a deeper malaise’

We continue in the chattering classes to revile and ridicule Zuma at our peril; he’s a wily politician and tactician who once rallied popular support at the polls and now as those numbers have declined, he has (allegedly) used his understanding of vernacular discontent on the ground to unleash a low- grade guerrilla war in which many of the warriors would not necessarily call him their general. The rhetoric of law and order, criminality and respectability does nothing to change that. In short, Zuma is not the problem as much as the support that he garners and the #UnrestSA that unfolded in the wake of his arrest are symptoms of a deeper malaise. 

What happened last month in South Africa will happen again if a change of course does not take place. The inequality is too profound. But this is not a function of South African postapartheid democracy only. It has happened elsewhere and will happen again. Apartheid itself was an Afrikaner “perfection” of British colonial experimentation aimed at solving the very same problem of too many “Blacks”. Put otherwise, the question that apartheid answered was a global one: how to keep racial capitalism going after emancipation and now independent states with Black numerical majorities? 

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Jan Smuts’ articulation of the problem of too many “natives” in 1917 at the Savoy in London is on a continuum with Carlyle’s setup of the “Nigger Question” in 1853, of how to get Quashee to work the plantations that ex-slaves fled after emancipation. Indian indentureship became one solution with dual purposes – as an alternative cheap-labour source and a so-called buffer race that could be “neither native nor settler” in the African context as Mahmood Mamdani has often said. 

It is not accidental that Phoenix, Durban and other former Indian areas (according to apartheid’s designation) became sites of interracial tension, because by design they were lodged between white suburbs and Black townships and settlements. This is not novel to South Africa or Africa. In his 1996 novel, Salt, Earl Lovelace offered a critique of Trinidadian post-independence leadership in which racial harmony becomes a mirage because the crimes of African enslavement and Indian indentureship have not been addressed. For Lovelace the proximity of African and Indian descendants of unrepaired colonial and capitalist traumas bred and breeds contempt and resentment.

Sylvia Wynter saw it in Guyana and, as several commentators have noted, we saw it last week in Phoenix. That post-apartheid and post-independence governments have made catastrophic errors is a given.

Colonial and apartheid legacies

Apartheid ended with a negotiated settlement that simply tinkered at the edges of its socioeconomic order. But this was the concession of many post-colonial spacetimes – once the freedom fighters have political control and power, the people will have (albeit eventually) liberation. Right? No, this was rarely the case. Political power in the absence of economic power and in the face of cultural imperialism only yields clientelism, rent seeking, the desire for authoritarian or autocratic leadership and the shrinking promise of a future heaven. Post-colonial and post-apartheid elsewheres bear this out.

The price of postcolonial political freedom was often economic self-determination. I don’t want to valorise postcolonial leaders. From Trinidad to Jamaica to Haiti to Cuba to Nigeria to Ghana to Zimbabwe, that long generation of freedom fighters and first leaders of independent nations had their flaws. 

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They were not perfect. Certain leaders received support from captains of industry and other political players, while others didn’t. Some were catapulted to the forefront precisely because they were seen to be more friendly to corporate or imperial interests. Yet what made the coup possible in Trinidad in 1990 was structural adjustment – austerity measures – that in the wake of rampant cronyism and client list looting by the “big boys” left little for the folks at the bottom of the food chain. 

South Africa is not Trinidad, Trinidad is not South Africa. I am not offering an easy, reductive equation of the two so that some of us can sit more easily and fret less. Rather I link these two spacetimes – July 1990 Trinidad and July 2021 South Africa – to help us see the global stakes of the Black underclass that formal, political decolonisation has repeatedly failed. 

We can charge the average looter and therein continue the rampant criminalisation of poverty and poor people’s hope. We can conceive of this as the unique failure of South Africa, of Cyril or Jacob. Or we can reckon with  the reality that this is a local manifestation of a global problem and truly begin to construct a new world.

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