Decisive action imperative in widening crisis

The state needs to bring the attacks on critical infrastructure in KwaZulu-Natal to an immediate end and ensure that the people who live there have food and feel safe.

The organised attacks on critical infrastructure in KwaZulu-Natal are continuing, people are running out of food, armed vigilante groups are roaming the streets and racial tensions are boiling over. A storm, a storm that may carry unimaginable fury and loss, is rushing into the cities and towns.

With events unfolding and new information coming in with the velocity that marks every major social and political crisis, no one has a decisive grasp on the situation. Things are changing by the hour. All information is limited, all attempts to make sense of the crisis provisional. Nonetheless, it is in the moment of crisis that the imperative to find and weigh evidence, draw conclusions and act is most urgent.

Some things are all too clear.

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One is that there is an ongoing, well-organised, widespread and strategically sophisticated attack on infrastructure. Cellphone towers, electricity substations, reservoirs, trucks, malls, warehouses, fuel storage facilities, factories and more have been and are being destroyed with impunity. These kinds of attacks are not at all typical of spontaneous riots. They are more typical of a well-organised coup attempt, or a civil war. There is a very high risk that this ongoing destruction of infrastructure could generate a massive social and political crisis.

The state needs to act decisively to bring the attacks on critical infrastructure to an immediate end, and to begin to restore and repair the infrastructure, beginning with a social understanding of what is most urgently required.

Food and safety

A second matter of undeniable urgency is that people are running out of food. This is an explosive situation and it is being compounded by the fact that certain groups of people are already being scapegoated and accused of hoarding food. The state must, immediately, announce the restoration of the Covid-19 grant. It must also act with the utmost urgency to ensure that food is brought into the province on a massive scale and distributed on the basis of need. Where necessary, private resources and infrastructure, including logistics skills and networks, must be placed in service of the public good.

A third pressing aspect of the crisis is that people are not safe. In response to real threats to public safety, people across race and class have organised themselves into vigilante groups and informal militia. However, there have been many instances in which the actions of vigilantes who are white or of South Asian descent have specifically targeted African people.

This has led to rapidly escalating tensions, tensions that some actors are actively seeking to exploit. This could lead to serious conflict, loss of life and a breakdown in trust that could scar society for many years to come. It is essential that immediate steps are taken to ensure people’s safety, steps that do not degenerate into more of the state violence that has marked the rule of the ANC in recent years.

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There is an urgent need to correct a potentially dangerous conceptual and empirical confusion. It is clear that the organised attacks on infrastructure are a different phenomenon from the food riots, and the more general forms of riot and looting that followed. It seems almost certain that the attacks on infrastructure are being carried out by actors loyal to the kleptocratic and authoritarian political project that cohered around Jacob Zuma. 

It is equally clear that the food riots were a spontaneous phenomenon emerging from a situation of widespread desperation. Misrepresenting the food riots as “pro-Zuma protests”, or claiming that they were somehow organised by sinister external forces, is a dangerous misunderstanding that casts ordinary people as the enemy in a time in which real enemies of democracy need to be isolated and decisively confronted.

Nobody knows exactly which forces are attacking the infrastructure across the province or what kind of strength they have, what sort of resources are at their disposal and what support they may have from people within the security forces and intelligence.

What we know

What we do know is that the project that cohered around Zuma was never just about the kleptocracy that grew and festered during his rule. It always had an anti-democratic element, was accompanied by a steep increase in state repression and informal forms of political violence, and was directly articulated to the political capture and redirection of significant parts of the intelligence services and the police. We also know that it drew in significant elements of the violent, reactionary, authoritarian and deeply ethnicised politics of Inkatha. It is also well known that while in office, Zuma had clear connections to the criminal underworld. In Durban, his nephew is the city’s most notorious taxi boss. It is widely understood that the taxi mafia is directly linked to political violence, including assassinations.

We know that vast amounts of money disappeared from the intelligence services during Zuma’s presidency, and that weapons are also unaccounted for. Recent reports that suggest people in or formerly in the intelligence services and the security forces are behind the ongoing attacks on infrastructure need to be explored as a matter of intense urgency. The public must be kept up to date with the best available information on this matter.

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It is imperative as a matter of grave national urgency that the ongoing attacks on infrastructure are stopped, that people’s safety is secured and that there is a massive project, drawing on private-sector logistical capacities, to move food into KwaZulu-Natal.

These are days of extreme danger, days that will be remembered for generations to come, days that will define the future of our country. The state must act and act now in the interests of safety, peace and democracy.

Editor’s note: This article draws on discussions with a wide range of people in Durban, including many grassroots activists, throughout the day.

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