An explosion of rage swept across large parts of South Africa last week.
Thousands of the poorest people in the country rioted and looted shopping centres, supermarkets and warehouses.
It was triggered by protests organised by supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who had just been jailed. There is strong evidence of a plan to create chaos that would allow Zuma’s faction to return to office in government.
But it quickly became about much more—and most of those involved have no interest in Zuma or any of the politicians at the top of society.
At the root of what’s happened is desperate poverty.
Sifiso lives in Umlazi township near Durban. He told Socialist Worker, “It has been such a hard year and a half. There is real suffering with far more deaths from the virus than official figures show. And very, very bad retrenchments—job losses.
“Poor people saw a chance to take food but also some of the goods that they see in the shops but cannot afford, or hope ever to afford.
“The supporters of Zuma have been trying to show that society falls apart if their man is jailed. But there is a much bigger context to what has happened.”
President Cyril Ramaphosa said the looting was “opportunistic criminality”. But he was also forced to admit, “This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew. The level of unemployment, poverty, and inequality in our society is unsustainable.”
It is unsustainable. But Ramaphosa and his African National Congress predecessors in office have presided over decades of that poverty while boosting big business.
The looting is a symptom of the lack of fundamental change since the end of apartheid in 1994.
Here activists and socialists analyse these events.
‘It cannot be business as usual after this’
S’bu Zikode, a leading member of the shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, spoke to Socialist Worker.
“At the beginning, we see the work of the Zuma people.
“By the Zuma people, I do not mean those ordinary voters or African National Congress members who backed him at some point.
“I mean the former members of the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe, and those in the state security agencies linked to Zuma.
“They have tried to show that if they are removed from control then the country will be on fire. A war within the ruling party has burst forth.
“We can also see some of the police have allowed burning of factories and shopping malls. When we have protests there are police everywhere, armoured vehicles, all the means of repression. But we have seen police stand aside because they are supporters of Zuma.
“However, the majority of looting has nothing to do with Zuma. It is because people are hungry.
“Abahlali baseMjondolo has always warned that the anger of the poor can go in many directions. We have warned again and again that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.
“We have warned for too long that people cannot continue to live in terrible poverty only to be ignored year after year. We have made it clear that people will not allow their humanity to be vandalised forever. For too long we have been explaining that we are ruled with violence and that the public, the middle and upper classes, often accept this by their silence.
“The elites have always ignored the poor. They do not see us. When the riots happened suddenly the poor were before their eyes.
“Abahlali has no illusions about Zuma. When he was president 18 of our activists were assassinated. His people looted the state to enrich themselves.
“But we also do not see president Ramaphosa as the answer.
“The last week must be a turning point. It cannot be business as usual after this. It is a rupture that demands a new way forward.
“The ANC cannot clear this mess. All South Africans should thank it for its role in liberation from apartheid but it is no longer an agent of change. We cannot put our hopes in it. We need a voice from below.
“There is a profound question of democracy, of participation and trust. We do not trust the state. Everyone sees politicians as liars.
“Democracy has been privatised and become restricted to a few.
“You cannot solve such issues with the military. We need radical policies and to rethink our whole approach.”
A brave stand against xenophobia
In our section of the township, people were saying this is our chance to drive out the foreigners. There are Zimbabweans here who have come looking for work and safety. There is a man near me who has come from Congo.
People say that such foreigners are taking our jobs and our money or that they are all criminals. It is very dangerous. Sometimes government ministers say things like this too.
But I do not believe these people from other countries are our enemies. I do not think we should turn on other Africans and blame them for our poverty.
Last week some of us stood outside the shacks of the foreigners and said we would defend them. People listen to us because we have stood up for the people against the council, against the police, against gangsters.
In time, those who wanted to drive out the foreigners went away.
Lucas, Katlehong township near Johannesburg
South African socialists speak out
Most of the people looting are doing so out of desperation. During the pandemic the cost of a basic food basket rose above the median wage while the government withdrew the microscopic grant that was the only thing keeping some people afloat.
Many breadwinners have died during the pandemic.
Blame for this desperation and the resulting destruction must land squarely on the shoulders of capitalism. This is a system that loots the labour of the working class every day.
Blame is also attached to senior ANC government figures and their cronies, in the Ramaphosa faction as much as the Zuma faction. They have enriched and empowered themselves in various ways in return for protecting and enhancing the obscene profits of one or another section of capital.
We still live in an extremely unequal society, where white abundance is ringed by a sea of black poverty. Some 27 years of ANC rule has failed to give back land, redistribute wealth or defeat the racial capitalism that gave birth to, and survived the end of, apartheid.
Soldiers cannot solve any of this. They can only suppress it until the next explosion.
We do not need a different faction of the ANC. We need a socialist revolution, where working and unemployed people together take control of food production and everything else that is made, mined or farmed in South Africa, and organise our lives according to our needs and not for the profits of capitalism.
Keep Left, South Africa
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