It is an icy 3 degrees Celsius when the anti-looting night patrol by members of the Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) draws to a close at 1am on Saturday 17 July. The last task of the night has just been completed: dropping off an elderly man who was spotted an hour earlier alone on a deserted road in Makhanda, Eastern Cape.
Seeing that a known tsotsi was closing in on him, the UPM team urged the man to get into their vehicle and drove him to many houses before locating his family, who explained that he often forgets where he lives.
It has been another very long day for the UPM activists, who began their work at 10am by distributing thousands of flyers and speaking out against looting with fellow residents at the taxi rank and in the mall.
After riots broke out in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, community organisations and taxi associations in the Eastern Cape moved quickly to announce that people in this province would not be following suit.
“As much as the people of Grahamstown are failed by the municipality, we shouldn’t allow our honest struggle against poverty and unemployment to be hijacked by politicians who are fighting their own battles,” says UPM member Mahlubandile Radebe, 44. “The instigators of the looting are the same people who have put the country in this dire situation.”
UPM chairperson Tshezi Soxujwa, 23, says members have been patrolling for several days. “In Makhanda, people are hungry and poverty has no logic, so we cannot know what everyone is thinking. We condemn looting, so this is why we are educating people that this is not our battle.”
Close to home
At the tiny Happy Takeaway and Mini Mart, shopkeeper Kamraan Ahmed, 30, is pleased when UPM member Luzuko Kelele, 35, arrives for a chat. Ahmed, who has been in South Africa for 10 years, says his cousin just lost everything he owned in the riots in KwaZulu-Natal.
“A lot of people have also gone missing in those riots. It is better to educate the community first before anything happens,” Ahmed says.
Kelele tells him he is there to reassure Ahmed that the UPM is keeping an eye on the situation. “As a social movement, it is our responsibility to go to the people. Some are not well aware and will just do as others do. We have a very high unemployment rate here, so if we allow people to loot, others will lose the little jobs that we have. If you lose your job in this pandemic, you won’t get another one,” says Kelele.
The town’s taxi drivers need no persuading not to loot, believing it is bad for business. So, after a brief stop at the taxi rank, the UPM members enter a part of town famous for its shops owned by migrants from across the African continent.
A group of men from different African countries are pleased to see UPM spokesperson Ayanda Kota, 45, who greets them with a hearty cry of “love you, brothers”. They say Kota and the UPM have protected them several times in the past against xenophobic attacks.
Thabisa Faku, 32, says the UPM has heard people asking why they should not loot because they are as hungry and poor as people in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, and the ANC also does not care for them. “But we can’t do the same because we are struggling already here and we can’t afford to make things even worse for ourselves,” Faku adds.
The UPM pamphlet is received enthusiastically, showing the deep disillusionment of the community with the ruling ANC. It reads, in part: “[No] to looting! No to self-inflicted pain. Municipalities are dens of thieves. Municipalities have collapsed due to their looting. Because they have no other space, [the ANC is] now fighting openly, each faction of the ruling elite wants to control the state. We must not get involved in their open fight, in who must steal from us, who must oppress us.”
‘Reject political parties’
The pamphlet continues: “We must be organised as communities. We must fight for water, for bread, for roads, for work and for life. We go to bed on a hungry stomach because of the same politicians. We must reject political parties. We must reject capitalism. We must reject tribalism.”
The UPM has been pivotal in forming the Makana Citizens Front, which it registered recently as a political party. Outside Makhanda’s Shoprite, people ask the UPM for an update on the front and the upcoming local government elections.
“We are struggling, having no jobs and trying to overcome the poverty rate. The government should be trying to improve the infrastructure here and creating jobs for the youth. We don’t even have clean water here. If we can succeed in taking down the municipality in elections, we will be able to figure out a way forward to a better future for us,” says Vivienne Jack, 43.
After a break of a few hours, the night patrol begins at 9pm. It appears uneventful – the streets are quiet after curfew with just three groups of young people spotted walking around. But as soon as they see the car, the groups split into pairs and vanish quickly into the night. The UPM activists explain that they are known criminals.
“They are high on drugs and that’s why they can walk all night. They rob anyone who is out alone. If they don’t find someone, they will take a chance and break into a house,” explains Kota.
The UPM’s members are not vigilantes and patrol unarmed. Only one police vehicle and a few private security cars are seen the whole night. It is not clear what the UPM team would do if they came across a group of looters, other than try to talk them down.
They did this the day before when they overheard a small group planning to loot a big supermarket “for groceries only”. The UPM dissuaded them, but as Kota says: “This is why we are very concerned. You can see for yourself those young and desperate criminals – it would be very easy for anyone to incite them to loot and then who knows what would happen?”
The solution for Makhanda lies not in looting or vigilantism, but in the hard work of organising the whole town to “step away from political parties”, Soxujwa says. “Here we move with the philosophy of unity, that we unite against the cause of our oppression, the cause of us becoming sub-humans in our own place. If people could unite outside of political parties, start a national civic movement that would speak with one voice, South Africa would be liberated,” he says.