Beware those lurking on the sidelines as government and police fail

Beware those lurking on the sidelines as government and police fail

By Claire Raga and Savo Heleta

Sunday Times

26 September 2021

On September 5, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that a new task team will investigate the reasons for citizens’ lack of trust in the police, particularly when it comes to the failure of the police to prevent the July riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, or to protect people, property and infrastructure.

Public perceptions about the failures of the police - and all levels of the government - are nothing new. Since the beginning of the democratic dispensation, SA has seen a great number of failures and setbacks in the ability of national, provincial and local authorities to govern, provide services and meet the basic needs of the majority of citizens. This, in turn, has triggered thousands of protests by desperate people demanding jobs, better pay, service delivery and livelihood improvements.

The failure to govern and provide security became particularly evident during the July unrest, when the country was appalled by the vicious cycle of rampant looting and destruction of shopping centres, businesses, warehouses and other facilities and infrastructure in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The destruction and turmoil have affected the poor and middle class, privately owned businesses and state-run facilities, and provincial infrastructure. The impact of this on society, the economy and the country’s stability will be immense in the months and years to come.

The exact causes of these tumultuous actions remain to be confirmed. Some have pointed fingers at pro-Zuma supporters and prominent government and ANC figures, accusing them of prompting and instigating the violence and looting to expose what they see as the failures of the opposing ANC faction that is in power.

Others have highlighted the extreme poverty and inequality in SA that saw poor, hungry and desperate people, long forgotten by the government, entering shops and businesses in search of food and other basic necessities. And there were also opportunists who saw the chaos as an opportunity to steal.

Whatever the reasons for the unrest and whether any of the above is true - or there is more to it - the events over the past few weeks have shown that the government has a long way to go to transform the country, govern effectively and offer basic services to large sections of the population.

During the unrest across KwaZulu-Natal and in parts of Gauteng, one thing became painfully evident: in a time of great need, South African authorities and the police were completely absent. While this has been a reality for so many in the country for a long time - whether we consider security, social protection or delivery of basic services - the recent crisis and devastation exposed this on an enormous scale.

Where the government is absent, incapable or where it fails, there is likely to be someone else willing to take the reins and exert control and influence. Gangs have been doing this in SA for years. In many communities where the government has failed to govern and provide basic necessities, and where the police have failed to provide security, gangs have taken over, exerting a great deal of power and influence and even providing food, job opportunities and other necessities to struggling people. In essence, gangs have been able to utilise the failures of the government and police to their benefit and in the process grow their illegal enterprises.

As tensions rose across the country during the recent chaos in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, there were fears in other provinces that the turmoil and destruction could spread. In the Eastern Cape, the South African National Taxi Council stepped in to protect local shopping centres.

The taxi industry got involved after appeals from the premier, Oscar Mabuyane, who understood from the scenes of violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng that the police and authorities were incapable of protecting property, people and institutions and providing basic security. He turned to the taxi bosses in the province, asking them to protect the communities, businesses and infrastructure.

While the actions of the taxi industry in the Eastern Cape must be commended, it is important to ask critical questions about their motives. The first observation is that the taxi industry was motivated by its own interests, as it would suffer a loss of income if looting started in the Eastern Cape, given that its primary source of income is the transportation of people.

However, other, more sinister, motives should not be overlooked. There are some who worry that the taxi industry will use its intervention to protect the province to hold the provincial and local authorities to ransom in the future. This should not surprise anyone given the numerous violent shutdowns of the cities and towns in the province by the taxi industry over the years. In May this year, the Eastern Cape was rocked by widespread violent protests by the same taxi industry that recently came to province’s rescue. And now, only two months after they helped save the day in the province, the same taxi industry is waging a war against e-hailing drivers, causing chaos in Nelson Mandela Bay.

As heroic as the Eastern Cape taxi industry’s actions in July to prevent looting may seem, it is important to consider the long-term consequences of the failure of the police, other security services and the provincial authorities to provide security and basic services, and turning to the taxi industry for help. If the South African Police Service cannot provide protection and security to communities, businesses and industries, what is the point of the police? If the government cannot govern and provide basic services, what is the point of having the government at all? Should South Africans perhaps begin to ignore the uncaring, incapable and corrupt government and instead organise progressive “solidarity councils” across the country to work towards more effective and just change and service delivery, as a recent editorial in the New Frame suggested?

SA remains the most unequal country in the world, where the inequality is rooted in the colonial and apartheid looting and oppression and the failures of the democratic dispensation to improve the lives of millions of desperate people. Unless things fundamentally, structurally and systemically change - and change quickly - the country will remain fragile, unsustainable and on the edge of the abyss.

Until the national, provincial and local authorities are seen as effective actors able to govern without corruption and nepotism, provide basic services and meet the needs of the citizens, other groups will be lurking on the sidelines, ready to jump in and “save the day”. And, in most instances, this will create new complexities and problems.

Claire Raga works at Nelson Mandela University. Dr Savo Heleta works at the Durban University of Technology. This piece is written in their personal capacity.