Editor's note: What began as protests against the imprisonment of former South African president Jacob Zuma spiralled into something sinister over the second and third weeks of July, exposing socio-economic fault lines in a country reeling from record unemployment, bruising inflation and ugly inequality. Over 300 people died and 3,000 shops were looted in an outbreak of violence that stunned the world and exposed the deep chasm between the haves and the have nots.
There were reports about racial targeting of several groups, including Indians. Concerned over the safety of Indian expats, the government took up the matter with authorities in South Africa, who assured that everything was being done to restore law and order. As dramatic photographs of fires dotting charred streets, black plumes covering the day sky and protesters clashing with the police surfaced, global media took note of the mayhem that brought the country to its knees. A first-person account.
Last year, when the pandemic hit, my partner and I were briefly stranded in Mexico City. The university where I had been undertaking a research fellowship shut down, as did much of the city and the flight route that would take us home to Johannesburg.
Within a few days, Johannesburg was out of the question anyway: residence permits in South Africa were temporarily cancelled and my British partner was, in effect, banned from our home. Making a lot of nervous jokes about US war films and the last planes out of Saigon, we managed to find a flight to London, where we have family. What was meant to be a brief stop became a surreal five months of living in a small hotel room above an empty pub in Kings Cross, followed, eventually, by a tense repatriation flight through Qatar.
Central London in its first lockdown summer was full of charm, its ancient streets emptied out, its historic buildings visible rather than hidden behind crowds of braying bankers. But I kept my eyes wistfully on home. The South African government had shut the borders hard and fast and barricaded people at home.
Unlike many leaders’ laissez-faire approaches to mass death, the African National Congress seemed committed to saving lives. From a distance, far from the restrictive rules and violent military enforcement, it looked admirable, optimistic even.
When we finally returned home it became clear that my optimism — as is so often the case in this country, which will break your heart twice before breakfast — was naïve and misplaced. Rampant corruption at every level, from the theft of PPE funds to party cadres quite literally stealing food parcels meant for the destitute, South Africa was doing what South Africa does: the elites were ‘eating’, the poor were starving and civil society was trying to fill the gap.
Rumour had it that, when the exclusive Sandton City mall was allowed to reopen for trade, there were queues outside the Louis Vuitton store as newly minted PPE millionaires kitted themselves out with the requisite accessories. In sheer numbers, our financial losses barely compared to the vast sums of money handed out to government cronies in the ‘developed’ West, but is perhaps the world’s most unequal country, they were enough to bite hard.
With only a paltry and difficult-to-access grant of R 350 (about ₹1,776) per month to keep themselves alive, many unemployed people slid further into extreme poverty. This was not the work of a government that cared about saving lives.
Months later, in July this year, my partner and I were on the warm coast south of Durban, a port city on the Indian Ocean. We’d hired an apartment so I could escape the draining Johannesburg winter and finish my book (on, ironically, anxiety in South Africa).
Former president Jacob Zuma, who had overseen nine years of plunder and infrastructural collapse, had just been given a prison sentence for contempt of court, which he seemed determined to avoid. His supporters threatened violent resistance but pundits scoffed, insisting Zuma no longer had that level of backing. They underestimated both the organisation and the ruthlessness of the pro-Zuma ANC faction and its many associates.
That Monday morning, at the start of our planned return to Johannesburg, we accidentally ran into what government eventually agreed to call an ‘insurrection’. Driving down the highway from Durban, we approached the small city of Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu Natal-province. I remember mentioning how ominous one particular cloud looked, hanging low and dark over the valley, almost like smoke. Which of course it was: a fugue of toxic ash hanging over a local mall that had been looted and then set on fire.
We soon reached a point where the highway was closed off by police, who lackadaisically waved us into a devastated town. Roads into and out of the city centre were blocked by groups of protesters burning tyres and waving makeshift weapons. Crowds of people roamed the streets looking menacing, distressed, confused, or afraid.
A group of grinning young men marched down a street with crates of stolen beer in defiance of the national alcohol ban; a cluster of older women scuttled away from a mill carrying bags of maize flour and other staple foods on their heads. The streets were covered with rubble, ash and debris.
We turned back five-six times from roads that had become impassable. We asked a local policeman for advice – police are genial, in times of looting, to nervous whites – and he told us to get off the road and to give up on leaving the city. Driving wasn’t safe. Being out wasn’t safe. Find somewhere safe, he said. Be safe. No one could tell us where or how to achieve this.
These kinds of scenes, of roadblocks of burning tyres, cities under palls of smoke, groups of people taking material goods and taking over places that usually exclude them, are not new to most South Africans. Even I had seen them before, in miniature, when the 2015 Fees Must Fall protests at my university broke out of the campus and into the surrounding area. But the extent of this turmoil was shocking to me, with my quiet suburban upbringing. Pietermartizburg was volatile, and I was afraid.
For the middle-classes in South Africa, this kind of fear can often be mitigated with money. We drove towards the suburbs and away from the charred buildings, phoned some guest houses and found someone who was willing to take us in. For two nights, then three, the looting continued, with decimated retail parks set on fire across the city.
Rumours flew of violence, attacks, murder, of local vigilantes burning down a shack settlement as punishment for who knows whose misdeeds, of well-off people trundling into town in their cars to load looted electronics, of gangs arranging transport for the poor to and from looting sites, of chronically ill people running out of medication, and over and over of this being planned, orchestrated, managed.
Shops remained shuttered where they hadn’t been destroyed and basic foodstuffs were becoming difficult to find. The news said the army was coming; the army came and patrolled some government buildings while thousands of people’s livelihoods burned and the infrastructure of the city crumbled. Pietermaritzburg had been abandoned.
This was not the work of a government that cared about saving lives.
A few days later, after hours of queuing for half a tank of petrol, we drove to the nearby town of Hilton, where a friend had arranged an overnight room. Hilton is a rarefied and colonially minded place, home to two of the most expensive private schools in South Africa.
Its website touts its ‘English country village’ style: charming gardens, gorgeous valleys and a community of artists and eccentrics. Arriving in Hilton after a few days stuck in Pietermaritzburg was a deeply dissociative experience. Once we’d traversed the roadblock at the start of the town – this time manned not by poor black men burning tires and waving sticks but by well-fed white men wearing high-visibility jackets and brandishing firearms, backed by a table loaded with snacks and water bottles – we drove into an almost uncanny quiet.
In Hilton, there was no mess on the roads, no sound of gunfire, no chemical pall in the air and certainly no groups of black people on the streets. The hotel where we were to stay overnight apologised deeply for its limited room service menu and offered extra fluffy towels. There were snaking queues for the grocery store, but the pet shop and artisanal bakery were open. Quaint roadside stalls advertised proper coffee.
The town and the city, just ten minutes drive apart, offered an achingly apposite illustration of why South Africa is the way it is, and why we fail when we simply dismiss the dispossessed as criminals for stealing food, shoes, even plasma TVs. After Pietermaritzburg, Hilton felt like a scene from The Stepford Wives. While the long, uncertain drive home was daunting, we were relieved to be out of that town.
There is no great moral to this story, no comforting endpoint where it all makes sense. Of course, we made it home unharmed and picked up our lives as though nothing much had happened, which is mostly what South Africans do, inured as we are to violence and uncertainty.
But these two experiences of being stuck away from home, of being locked down in different ways, have left their mark on me. I am not ‘packing for Perth’ or ‘semigrating’ to Cape Town, both the preserve of worried whites whose fear outweighs the appeal of Johannesburg’s perfect weather.
But I am mourning, perhaps pre-emptively, the slow shuttering of this city I love and the ongoing disintegration of a social contract that is withering in the face of the state’s indifference. This is not the work of a government that cares about saving lives.
Professor Nicky Falkof is an associate professor of media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa