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Looting not a problem of poverty

Police arrest people involved in a looting spree in Jabulani Mall, Soweto.
Police arrest people involved in a looting spree in Jabulani Mall, Soweto.

First, there is the good news. The storm will subside. We will reset as if nothing happened. That is the bad news.

We will move on and not deal with the underlying causes of this massive stress test of our democratic state. Until it happens again, we anguish, and then we forget again.

I asked friends living in the UK what they remember about Britain’s 2011 urban riots that their newspapers then described as “a defining contest between order and disorder”, and a future prime minister observed as “disorder on a scale not seen in this country for many, many years”.

None of my UK friends remember those devastating riots. Bad news.

We are in an intense search to make meaning out of the explosion of community violence and wholesale looting in especially the richest (Gauteng) and most densely populated provinces (Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal).

The explanations given are breathtaking in their range — tribalism, terrorism, poverty, inequality, unemployment, pandemic stress and more. No doubt, there is some truth in all of these attempts at sense making and even less comfort in a conclusion gaining ground among political commentators — a failed state.

There can be no question that three of our most important institutions have failed us in the crisis — the police, the army and intelligence. The slow and uneven response to the crisis across these critical agencies speaks of a government that is divided in its loyalties to the imprisoned president and ambivalent about using the full force of the state to suppress this revolt against acceptable social norms, rules and values.

We may have reason to be ambivalent about using the language of “state of emergency” (that is part of PW Botha’s total onslaught response) while the enemies of the state have been quite crafty in dangling the threat of “another Marikana” before the eyes of a president who once apologised for his role in the massacre during student questions at Rhodes University.

In an email to mining management, then Deputy President Ramaphosa described the actions of miners as “plainly dastardly criminal acts and must be characterised as such”. Death followed, playing the future president offside.

All of us have standout memories and memes from this unbelievable week of unleashed anarchy. Mine is the woman lying on the ground under police guard while clinging stubbornly to a stolen suitcase. What is going through her mind?

In normal times, you distance yourself from the incriminating evidence as quickly as possible. Perhaps the looter is in two minds. After all, everybody is stealing. Why pick on me? Maybe I will be let go, with my new acquisition. That is certainly the impression — everybody is stealing.

How did we get here? When citizens sense that everybody is stealing, then of course they rush to the malls and the shops to steal as well.

The president in prison is our alleged commander-in-thief alongside everyone else from Prasa executives to municipal managers. So, who cares about a lowly looter in KwaMashu or Katlehong? Everybody steals, it seems.

The commentariat so far have concentrated their meaning-making efforts on the obvious institutions such as the courts and the police. But the breakdown of norms, rules and values happens much earlier in two other institutions — the home and the school.

If your parents taught you firmly, in words and by example, the difference between right and wrong, you are unlikely to carry off a trolley of stolen goods from the Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg or Ndofaya Mall in Soweto.

If your school reinforces those home-grown values, you develop a heightened sense of consciousness about the difference between your money and other people’s money.

Humans are not animals. We do not respond mindlessly to external stimuli driven by our basest instincts. To therefore write off looting as a problem of poverty is not only lazy social science; it is borders on class arrogance and, in some cases, undisguised racism.

For one, there are poorer countries than SA and others that rival us in the inequality stakes where you do not see this kind of organised mayhem.

Truth is, we are taught (or not) the values by which we order our behaviour and constrain our impulses for the greater good. There is ample reason to be optimistic. The stories flooding in of ordinary citizens surrounding community-based malls and the homes of others speak to values such as concord and solidarity.

Taxi drivers, who often get a bad rap in the public eye, are the ones protecting privately owned businesses right now and patrolling the streets to control looters.

No, not everyone steals and that is my message of hope to anxious South Africans who feel let down by our government. As always, the power to change our situation lies with the people.


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