FIFTY years ago, Richards Bay on the Zululand coast was hardly more than a spot for recreational fishing. Today it is the site of South Africa’s deepest harbour and main bulk port, shifting 80 million tonnes per annum or 55% of the nation’s seaborne cargo. It is crucial for exports. Twelve million tonnes a year pass through the Dry Bulk Terminal (DBT), which is served by 40 kilometres of conveyor belt.

On the night of 12‒13 October there was a fire at the DBT affecting seven belts, following an earlier one the previous week. (A third has been mentioned, but has no date.) The operator, Transnet, declared force majeure, legal protection that implies it was constrained by hostile forces. Imports of fertiliser and exports of coal were affected in particular. A series of unfortunate accidents? Yes, possibly; but there was also a fire in a grain conveyor belt in Durban harbour. And Transnet declared force majeure back in July when Durban port was looted (most notably of a consignment of over one million rounds of ammunition), then the port system was hacked and disabled. This is a remarkable amount of misfortune for crucial economic infrastructure over a short period. Strangely, it has attracted minimal media interest.

There’s another dimension to this particular story. In early November copper cable was being stolen from the railways at a rate of 5.5 kilometres per day (at R1 million per km). Exactly how such a major operation is possible remains a complete mystery. Lines carrying coal and manganese have been particularly affected. So far this year nearly 1,200 freight trains have been cancelled.

Some commentators have tried to explain the July unrest as an outburst of grassroots anger about extreme poverty exacerbated by Covid-19 restrictions. That was no doubt a factor, but it fails to explain the BMWs without number plates involved in looting; or some of the targets, which were strategic. It cannot be denied that the unrest was a direct consequence of incitement following the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. And its geographic spread, which almost exactly mirrored the Zulu-speaking areas of the country, is telling. There was no unrest at all in the very poorest parts of the country suggesting that orchestration rather than poverty was the driving force.

Back in the mid-20th century analysts and commentators known as Kremlinologists used to try to dissect Soviet politics. Today South Africa needs Eskomologists to divine what is happening to South Africa’s fragile power supply as it lurches from one loadshedding crisis to another. One possibility is sabotage (officially mentioned as this is written). There has been a report of a massive (R100 million) theft of diesel from Eskom, which could be sheer criminality that amounts to economic sabotage. These distinctions tend to be academic given the congruence of politics and crime.

The first high-profile action of the July unrest was the attack on trucks at Mooi River toll plaza on the N3, South Africa’s most important communications artery. This was a military-style operation that was not launched by the hungry; nor was it the first such incident. Hundreds of trucks have been attacked and scores of drivers killed and injured over the past few years. Behind this activism is the Durban-based All Truck Drivers Foundation (ATDF). Ostensibly, the grievance is the matter of foreign drivers taking away South African job opportunities, but this is far-fetched. Some foreigners are drivers legally transporting from other countries. And which truck owner would employ a foreigner knowing there was a high chance of attack? Furthermore, South African drivers have been assaulted.

It is not easy to link clear acts of sabotage except through timing that appears more than coincidental. But another angle is to look at the organisations that make up a potential insurrectionary force loosely known as the radical economic transformation (RET) faction. There are a number of renegade organisations with a penchant for direct action, the most obvious being the criminal syndicates known politely as taxi associations. Others are even more shady, and more overtly nationalist, such as the Mazibuye African Forum (MAF) and Delangokubona Business Forum. MAF is an African consciousness pressure group, two of whose members have been found guilty of anti-Indian hate speech. (One of them is Z. Sangweni, a convicted armed robber.) Its business is to sow social discord through extremist rhetoric. Delangokubona, based in Mlazi, is a construction industry mafia most notorious for bringing to a halt work on the Mariannhill Interchange (N3 again) for two months while demanding a 30% stake. It has links with taxi associations and MK military veterans, and the disgraced former eThekwini mayor Zandile Gumede. Other disrupted sites were Tsogo Sun, and a metro project and a hotel both in Durban.

Then there are the renegade amabutho disloyal to the Zulu monarchy with a penchant for aggressive rhetoric and waving of traditional weapons. But most concerning of all are the LSWV (Liberation Struggle War Veterans) who seem to be cloned from Zimbabwean counterparts who kept Robert Mugabe in power. While relatively new, they are presumably an offshoot of the now officially disbanded MK Military Veterans Association and are known to have collaborated with the ATDF.

The leader of last month’s hostage taking in Irene of government ministers and officials by LSWV is former convict Lwazi Mzobe, who received a 15-year jail sentence for murder, attempted murder and aggravated robbery. Apparently, he is employed by eThekwini (Durban) metro, although in what capacity stretches the imagination since he was implicated in xenophobic attacks by the LSWV in Durban and disruption of port traffic. The neglected war veteran narrative is hard to credit since many of the complainants appear surprisingly young and the demobilisation process happened years ago, although for various reasons it probably did not conclude tidily.

The reaction of the authorities has been notably limp, its intelligence agencies and security forces apparently disempowered. Deaths and destruction have few consequences. There is an obvious explanation for this. Unrest has severe implications for the whole nation, but in some ways the country is a bystander to events within the ANC itself, the self-proclaimed ruling party. And the discord is a civil war within that party, so the action one would expect from a mature nation state to maintain its integrity and citizens’ safety is subordinate to the manoeuvring of ANC factions.

The organisations and groups mentioned above have much in common. To varying degrees all are aggressively nationalist and populist with grievances that are basically economic. Criminal records seem to be no bar to influential positions. Some have definitely worked with others, although there is no formal overarching structure to challenge authority. However, in this era of encrypted electronic communication the latter is no longer necessary. Like minds and a critical mass of virtual incitement can create havoc. As with the limited geography of the July unrest is there any significance in the fact that much of the ongoing disruption affects crucial transport links between the Reef and KwaZulu-Natal’s ports?

South Africa seems to have moved on beyond violent service delivery protest to a new level of instability. There is a definite case to be made for the existence of insurrectionary moments, of which the July unrest was the most dramatic. Put together over the years since Zuma was ousted as president, they amount to rolling insurrection. State capture was the defining characteristic of the Zuma presidency involving racketeering, defiance of the rule of law and undermining of the Constitution, and removal or obstruction of public servants doing their jobs conscientiously. It would appear that South Africa’s unravelling, like Eskom load shedding, has simply shifted up a level or two.