Looters, gangsters and the ‘third force’ – the disturbing root of South Africa’s violent riots

As violent riots and looting in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng continue into Wednesday, a clearer picture has emerged of the modus operandi of the mob, with three main ‘groups’ being identified in the chaos.

Violent looting and riots have left parts of KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng looking like a war zone, first erupting over the weekend following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma for being in contempt of court.

To date, over R5 billion worth of damage has been done, leaving 75 people dead and 1,200 arrested.

According to Intellidex analyst Peter Attard Montalto, despite claims from the government and security authorities, the situation is far from being under control, with the apparent calm seen on Tuesday morning again escalating overnight.

However, aside from rampant looting, the analyst pointed to a disturbing trend, namely the use of arson to destroy property.

In some cases, mobs have returned to shops and facilities that have long stood empty after looting and set them ablaze, pointing to very specific criminal elements that are outside the opportunistic thieves they have been characterised as.

Even this narrative has worn out, the analyst said, as footage of the looting shows that mobs are no longer only made up of the impoverished, but include middle-class South Africans who are grabbing luxury goods.

“We are increasingly concerned at the coordinated elements behind it that stem from a group of people around Jacob Zuma through mafia and gang elements,” Attard Montalto said, adding that the destruction of property rather than simple looting will increase the costs of economic damage quite sharply and make rebuilding harder and longer.

“As a general pattern, it seems once a property has been looted it is then set alight,” he said. “We need to be clear however that we understand these are different forces.”

Political roots

The message from the government has been that intelligence forces on the ground, within the mobs, are driving the riots.

Ex-State Security Agency (SSA) agents are under scrutiny, and a short-list of spies and intelligence officials has reportedly been drawn up.

Political messaging around the riots has also been that the wave of destruction is being done in the name of former president Zuma, and that it is a form of protest for his release from prison.

Other messaging points to pent-up frustration over lockdown, decades of poverty, unemployment and inequality as being the fuel for the mobs.

Efficient Group chief economist Dawie Roodt said it boils down to politics and the politics of the ruling ANC.

“Nothing justifies the looting, destruction, and plunder that we have seen in the past few days,” he said.

“Behaviour like this is exacerbated by deteriorating economic conditions, and we have had these conditions for many years: an economy that is in freefall, not because of the pandemic, nor the financial crisis, nor any other reason, but because of a destructive political force that goes by the name of the ANC-coalition government.”

Roodt said that decades of misrule combined with the last year of lockdown meant that the current situation was an inevitability.

“People are hungry, unemployed, and without hope. Obviously, this is also an opportunity to score some political points by a few. Unfortunately, what we see today is the economic consequences of a destructive government.

“People see, people do. What people see is a political elite that plunders with impunity. They are the leading looters and the destitute opportunists on the streets are the followers.”

However, Attard Montalto said nothing about the riots is quite as clear-cut, and that no single force is at play.

Looters, gangsters and the third force

He said the looting is happening through opportunistic petty criminals who are often poor but now include many lower and upper-middle-class citizens.

Here, the underlying inequality and unemployment drivers are important – certainly to the scale of what is going on.

“But the argument there only goes so far,” he said.

The arson, meanwhile, is more coordinated and believed to be coming from criminal gangs.

“These do have some links to Zuma’s circle and to intelligence and security operatives in his circle, but we believe it is a step too far to say these people are coordinating the arson itself.”

The intelligence and security forces, or the ‘third force’, were more involved in organising early protests – specifically “the weekend before last and from Thursday-Saturday last week in KZN and the unrest around KZN hostels in Johannesburg,” Attard Montalto said.

“These elements around Zuma are certainly responsible for inflaming the situation in our view – but we are deeply sceptical there is active coordination going on. Coordinated looting is by criminal gangs and mafia. This is a separate issue.”

The analyst said the more disturbing trend is “significant incursions” of violent gangs into residential areas in Durban and northern towns in the province.

However, there are definitely Zuma allies – and even former opponents – driving the chaos, something Attard Montalto characterised as ‘open insurrection’.

“The incitement from Zuma’s daughter and his foundation has now gone beyond poking the situation and fanning flames to open insurrection or treason. This has been further stoked by EFF leader Julius Malema.”

Where to from here?

Attard Montalto said that the response from the government and authorities has been dismal, and has fallen short by every measure.

There is growing anger at the complete failure of police and intelligence groups in dealing with the chaos, and it’s already too late for president Cyril Ramaphosa to try to control it through ramped-up emergency response.

“The government seems to have little else to offer here and a security cluster briefing (on Tuesday)  was completely divorced from realities on the ground in KZN especially.

“Debate over the need for a State of Emergency has been dismissed by the Defence Minister but is still on the table alongside a 48 hour curfew.

“We are sceptical that a state of emergency gives the government much optionality now they are already far too late in dealing with this. A curfew would be problematic with the food shortages.”

The analyst said that the only thing that can be done is to wait for the riots to run out of steam.

“At some point, there will be nothing left to loot and nothing left to burn. That is a dramatic moment – but this is going to have to run out of steam at some point this week.

“That is a very dangerous moment when we must watch if problems leap to other provinces – and the long tail of problems lasting,” he said.


Read: More groups call for state of emergency in South Africa

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Looters, gangsters and the ‘third force’ – the disturbing root of South Africa’s violent riots