The fire this time

It is unclear how the state will respond to the recent tumult in KwaZulu-Natal. Leadership will have to come from within society.

As the ashes begin to cool across KwaZulu-Natal, it is slowly becoming possible to take some measure of the enormity of the moment. It is one that will be remembered for generations to come. The flow of ordinary life, and the usually more slow and steady movement of history, have been ripped apart.

Books will be written, empirical knowledge gathered and refined, and debates carried out for generations to come. In this moment there are some things that we know and some that we don’t. It is necessary to repeat that the food riots, perhaps the largest in recent human history, were a largely spontaneous rupture rooted in hunger, desperation and a deep sense of abandonment by the state – a state that is systemically, fundamentally and brazenly corrupt. The food riots were overwhelmingly autonomous from the authoritarian and predatory political project carried out in the name of Jacob Zuma.

It is also clear that much of the wholesale looting that followed, in which the chief executive of a wealth management firm and other wealthy people participated, was a matter of opportunism. What is not clear is how the systematic destruction of infrastructure was organised and carried out, and with what final aim. The means for the provision of water and electricity, network towers, medical infrastructure, factories, oil refineries and fuel storage facilities, and the means for the storage and distribution of food – warehouses, malls, trucks and so on – were rapidly and systematically destroyed. This was a challenge to the authority of the state and the social order in a manner suggestive of well-planned and executed preparation for some sort of seizure of power.

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It is also not clear if the constant circulation of fake news, much of it seemingly designed to escalate panic and inflame racial tensions, was an organic expression of the crisis or something that, like tweets by the account under Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla’s name, was undertaken at times with deliberate intent.

So far, we have some evidence of participation of people in local ANC structures in the coordination of the attacks on infrastructure. There has also been a lot of speculation, none of it confirmed, of the possible role of people who are or claim to be Umkhonto weSizwe veterans as well as people in or formerly in the armed forces and intelligence services. It is vital that credible information about who carried out the attacks on the infrastructure, how they did so and with what purpose is ascertained and made public as swiftly as possible. Suggestions that there are further plans to continue to undermine society and the state need to be explored with the same urgency.

Reports that 20 African people were killed in Phoenix, a working-class township designated for people of South Asian descent under apartheid, also need to be quickly investigated, and once the facts are clear appropriate action taken.

A long stalemate?

The organised attacks on the basic infrastructure for collective life are, by any definition, a matter of treason. It is difficult to imagine a state that would not treat them as such. It is clear that most of society will see them as treason. What is not clear is how the ANC, and the state it manages, will respond. The state was largely absent during the tumult and when President Cyril Ramaphosa finally spoke, he offered nothing but anodyne platitudes. 

We know that neither Zuma nor his key lieutenants – people such as the former mayor of the eThekwini municipality, Zandile Gumede – enjoy popular support. Their attempts to call people into the streets for protests have constantly failed, and failed pitifully. But within the ANC there is some degree of support for its farcically self-identified “radical economic transformation” faction, an often criminal network bent on looting from public funds at the direct expense of the public, and in particularly the worst off among us. In KwaZulu-Natal there is significant support within the ANC for this project and the ethnic dimension that it acquired in the province.

Is Ramaphosa willing and able to take on these forces in the ANC at the national level? Is he willing and able to take them on in KwaZulu-Natal? Is effective deZumafication possible? We know that the premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala, was entirely unable or unwilling to give any leadership when the flames were at their height. His only decisive action appeared to be a televised assault on a teenage boy. Is Zikalala’s paralysis an indication of a long stalemate to come?

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There are many things that we do know.

We know that there is an urgent imperative to restore a sense of safety, food security and access to medical care, and to begin the work of rebuilding the economy.

We also know that Zikalala has lost all standing among the people and must be removed from office, that there can be no path out of the morass without a swift and effective project of deZumafication and that the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal is fundamentally compromised and wholly unable to offer credible leadership.

Leadership will have to come from within society. All kinds of encouraging initiatives are emerging to provide mutual aid, build solidarity, curtail paranoia and the circulation of false information, and isolate racists and other kinds of chauvinists. These are often local initiatives. One idea that has been floated is to set up solidarity councils in towns and cities that include community groups, trade unions, social activists, women’s organisations and religious groups but exclude political parties, to work together for a just peace. If this is possible, it could bring positive local initiatives into a wider community and would certainly be a promising initiative.

Unity in struggle

As the mayhem escalated this week, racial tensions were inflamed by acts of crude racism and incitement on social media, some of it taking the form of fake news. There is a well remembered history of racial violence in Durban, most notably in the violent conflict in 1949, centred in Cato Manor, and in Inanda in 1985. This tragic dynamic of episodic conflict between two sets of colonised people is not unique to KwaZulu-Natal. There have been similar experiences elsewhere in Africa and in the Caribbean, which has a similar colonial history of indentured labour from India being set to work on sugar plantations.

The great pan-Africanist intellectual Walter Rodney offered the best theorisation of this. Rodney, who was politically engaged in Guyana, his home, where he was assassinated in 1980, insisted that it was essential to “admit to the reality of racial divisions, not just the oppression of the White World over the non-White world, but also of the forms of division within the non-White world”. But, like any decent intellectual, Rodney understood that social and political problems have multiple dimensions and said that “no ordinary Afro-Guyanese, no ordinary Indo-Guyanese can afford to be misled by the myth of race. Time and time again it has been our undoing. Does it have anything to do with race that the cost of living far outstrips the increase in wages?” He saw what he called the politicisation of ethnic identity by opportunistic politicians as extremely dangerous, rejected what he called cheap statements of “hypothetical” unity and instead affirmed the necessity for unity in action, and specifically for “unity in struggle”.

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Unity in struggle, which is never without its challenges, is exactly what was achieved in South Africa in the Communist Party, the Black Consciousness Movement, the trade union movement, the armed struggle and the United Democratic Front. It continues today in the active alliances in Durban between organised shack dwellers, street traders, migrants and residents of hostels, run-down flats and polluted townships.

But after apartheid the ANC and its chosen community leaders, some of whom are self-appointed opportunists, have performed “hypothetical” unity, usually through the shallow charade of inane multiculturalism. There has to be a return to unity in action through mutual aid and shared struggle for a just and decent future.

But the most profound question of the moment is that of mass and desperate impoverishment, including hunger, and the violence with which the state rules impoverished people. This phenomenon certainly includes people who were determined to be “Indian” and “coloured” in Verwoerdian terms, but the vast majority of the impoverished are African.

Before and after

The food riots had an implicit social and political logic, but were not organised and therefore expressed no collective demands. Because they were not organised, there is no immediate possibility of the generation of collective demands and the material force to push for their realisation. But food riots on this kind of scale do mean an end to the previous status quo, a situation that was profoundly non-viable for large numbers of people. There will be a before and after.

The question is what the after looks like. Will most people remain unorganised or will new forms of organisation develop, and existing forms of organisation expand? Will middle-class society criminalise impoverished people, often in a racist manner, or will there be a recognition that solidarity is the only route to a viable future? Will the state respond by radically escalating its already brutal and routinely illegal rule by violence? Or will the state recognise that stability is only possible through rapid action to blunt the sharpest edges of the pain, exhaustion, indignity and anxiety of impoverishment? Will there, as rumoured, be an announcement that the Covid-19 grant will be restored? If so, will this be followed by much more serious action?

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It is not just essential to understand that the food riots were an almost entirely spontaneous response to collective desperation, overwhelmingly autonomous from the organised treason carried out from within or in proximity to parts of the ANC. It is also essential to understand that they were a complex phenomenon with many dimensions.

This was captured in the searing pain endured by Thapelo Mohapi, t the spokesperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo, which has tens of thousands of members in shack settlements across the city. On Tuesday morning he wrote: “When I was young in the early 1990s during the violence in this province, I looked up to my father for direction. Now that I am the father and my kids are looking up to me for direction in the face of this violence, I realise how difficult a position my father was in.” Later that day, in a collective process to draft a statement, he commented: “The elites have always ignored the poor. They do not see us. When the riots happened, suddenly the poor were before their eyes.” The next day his home, and the entire settlement where he lives, were burnt to the ground.

It is true that the desperation of the majority has now, in an unorganised way, taken centre stage. It is also true that this came at a huge and incalculable cost, and no one can know what the full consequences of this will be

The fact that the failure of the state to address desperate impoverishment, and the treason of the noxious project that cohered around Zuma, brought us into this material devastation and personal and collective pain, fear and uncertainty is tragic. The only possible way into a better future is to oppose the counter-revolution intent on waging an all-out attack on democratic gains, limited as they are, achieved through generations of struggle and to organise democratically for justice and solidarity.

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