In his address to the nation on Friday 16 July, President Cyril Ramaphosa was blunt: recent public violence and looting had been ‘a deliberate, co-ordinated and well-planned attack on [South Africa’s] democracy … The constitutional order … is under threat’.
There is plenty of suggestive evidence that all this is plausible. What the ANC fails to acknowledge is that this was another, particularly spectacular, episode in a long-running saga of subversion and economic sabotage known as state capture that took off with the Zuma presidency. This signalled the beginning of a process of plunder that built on an endemic culture of corruption.
Those who looted South Africa deliberately hollowed out the capacity of the State at all levels diminishing its ability to maintain the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution. They subverted the police, national prosecuting authority and revenue service; and mocked and attacked those in the media and judiciary who exposed this treason and tried to avert the rot. People in various organisations occupying the murky interface between politics and organised crime are strong on pseudo-revolutionary rhetoric about transformation and the will of the people; and ready to apply a match to the tinderbox of socio-economic deprivation.
Recent events have shown the levels to which evil racketeers will stoop to return South Africa to the hands of the predatory elite. Theirs is a long-running project, the subversion and ultimate destruction of a democratic state, a drawn-out insurgency.
A number of people ranging from the neo-fascist Julius Malema to academic commentators have dismissed the possibility of plot and suggested that the recent upheaval was a simple expression of popular rage against poverty, deprivation and pandemic regulations. There is no doubt these were all major factors. But there is enough evidence of organised insurrection. Public violence was confined to a particular geographic area; social media incitement was very precise and radical; and targets starting with road transport emerged in a fashion that suggested planning. There was a specific threat to shut down KwaZulu-Natal and that is exactly what happened for a week. After Durban harbour was closed for six days, another shutdown followed when the computer system was hacked. Coincidence?
Why was one particular container at Maydon Wharf in Durban mislocated, insufficiently secured, and looted? It happened to contain 1.5 million rounds of ammunition; little of which according to press reports has been recovered. Just one of those things? South Africa is awash with weapons, but bullets are in short supply. The respected journalist Mondli Makhanya has highlighted the upsurge in aggressive Zulu nationalism around Jacob Zuma, a toxic mixture of traditionalism and ruthless and threatening business methods. It has been suggested that the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction lacks the organisational capacity to mount a coup. It would be comforting to believe this, but dangerous. The weaponry, training and necessary attitude are there. And who knows what the reaction of the police – or even the army ‒ will be? Even the inaction of early July might be enough to tip the scale. Sheer incompetence could be sufficient.
The problem for anyone trying to analyse this situation is the deep link between criminality and ruling party politics in South Africa. The two are often indistinguishable. Ultimately, this crisis is an internal civil war within the ANC ‒ with the rest of us uneasy and vulnerable spectators.