Governance failures and the non-implementation of government policy have allowed for the systematic looting of public resources. As a result, communities have increasingly lost faith in government. In areas where the majority is unemployed and face hardships ranging from hunger to illness and abuse, the option of looting (when fuelled by inciting statements) becomes a viable short-term solution, especially if the police are unwilling to act.
Over the past few days, South Africa has experienced unprecedented and widespread looting and damage to property. These criminal acts have resulted in perpetrators, security and law enforcement officials and innocent bystanders being injured and even killed.
Health services trying to combat the Covid-19 pandemic have been seriously compromised as a result of this lawlessness — roads have been blockaded, ambulances have been pelted with stones and paramedics’ lives have been threatened by criminal groups.
Indicative of the state of play, during President Cyril Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on 12 July, eNCA simultaneously broadcast live footage of a South African National Blood Service building being looted.
Pharmaceutical chain stores Dis-Chem and Clicks have, in the past 24 hours, reportedly closed their Covid-19 testing and vaccination sites in KwaZulu-Natal due to the unrest. This, combined with similar impacts on municipal vaccination sites, may cause further delays to an already flailing process.
Large gatherings of looters have also created super-spreader events that will result in even more strain being placed on the already overburdened healthcare system.
The outbreak of lawlessness followed last week’s imprisonment of Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. Now, criminal charges need to be brought against those who incited violence in his name. Zuma and his allies and enablers in the state continue to inflict significant damage on a country that was looted extensively during his tenure as president of South Africa.
We have seen that despite Zuma’s departure and retirement at Nkandla, and the appointment of Cyril Ramaphosa as president, the looting of state funds has continued at various levels of government and is in no way restricted to a small group of individuals associated with the former president. Rather, corruption within the state has become embedded. One need only consider reports by the Special Investigating Unit and the Auditor-General to get a sense of the extent of the coordinated looting of the state.
For too long, South Africa’s vital signs have shown that it is a patient requiring major surgery to turn its health around. The Public Service Accountability Monitor, alongside other civil society groups, has repeatedly called on the government and politicians to introduce and maintain meaningful accountability checks and performance measurements to ensure the progressive realisation of human rights.
Too many of these calls for accountability have been ignored. Too many budgets have been spent that are not pro-poor or human rights oriented. Too many criminal acts committed by people in positions of power have gone unchecked and unpunished. This has created a widely held view that the South African police are compromised and incapable of fulfilling their mandate.
Governance failures and the non-implementation of government policy has allowed for the systematic looting of public resources. As a result, communities have increasingly lost faith in government and, especially, in those who should be providing services and taking steps to address inequality and insecurity for the poorest and most destitute of residents.
An environment where leaders act unaccountably and do not face consequences, but rather benefit from corruption and abuse of office, sets an example for others to act in a similar way.
In circumstances where the majority in a community is unemployed and face hardships ranging from hunger to illness and abuse, the option of looting (when fuelled by inciting statements) becomes a viable short-term solution, especially if the police are unwilling or incapable of acting effectively due to the compromised state of operations.
Solving these deep-seated governance and societal problems requires principled leadership across all levels of government, and the institution of lasting corrective action where checks and balances are ineffective. It requires a shift towards accountable conduct that prioritises the needs of the most poor and destitute, and which then builds trust between communities and leaders in government.
The imprisonment of Jacob Zuma for contempt of court — effectively punishing him for failing to account for his conduct — is one small but significant step towards building a more accountable state. Of course, the problems South Africa faces cannot be blamed upon Zuma and his inner circle alone — they are not the only people who should be held to account for contributing to the state of affairs.
Re-building accountability mechanisms and the implementation of pro-poor policies that are constitutionally compliant requires a capable state that takes meaningful action against those who loot — regardless of whether they are positioned within or outside the state.
The roadmap to building a more effective government and prosperous society remains the South African Constitution. Conduct that flies in the face of the obligations and ideals set out in the Constitution are significant threats to the rule of law and, if not checked, incentivise the kind of action we now see unfolding.
Now is the time to work with those committed to rebuilding South Africa’s democracy so that trust is slowly but surely restored. It is time to speak out against lawlessness and support those who lead by example and show dedication to the rule of law and the Constitution. DM