Prepare for food looting and protests in South Africa

South Africans should brace for the possibility of food riots and protests over a lack of income as the coronavirus lockdown is eased in the coming months.

South Africa is no stranger to protests, and they are often related to issues of service delivery – such as a lack of water or electricity supply – or labour disputes over wage increases and retrenchments.

The serious economic ramifications of the lockdown could lead to even greater desperation among South African communities, however, with the effects of unemployment and poverty spreading to more households.

In recent weeks, reports have surfaced of residents of Mitchells Plain in Cape Town clashing with the police during protests over food shortages.

Experts who spoke to MyBroadband warned this may only be the first of such instances set to come.

Clear signs

Head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies Jakkie Cilliers, said the threat of violence over a lack of food and income is real.

“The reality is simply that poor people in informal settlements have no option but to find ways of getting food and sustenance on the table. So I think there is a significant threat and concern about this,” he noted.

Cilliers said a letter in which President Cyril Ramaphosa requested Parliament to approve the deployment of additional SANDF soldiers demonstrated the government anticipated big problems.

“I think the decision to deploy over 70,000 members of the SANDF makes it very clear that government is very worried about the potential of food riots and broad criminal activity,” Cilliers said.

He noted that the problem with this type of violence in South Africa is that it tends to quickly gain momentum and spill over into large areas of informal settlements.

“The intention with the SANDF deployment is to try and make sure that you don’t have that momentum, that you squash it right at the start,” he explained.

However, the “perilous” state of the SANDF may serve to worsen the situation, he added.

“That size of deployment is unprecedented and those military officials are not trained and prepared for this,” Cilliers said.

“So I think we are gonna see significant tensions and a rising number of issues about how the military acts in trying to clamp down on this.”

Fewer, but more intense

Municipal IQ economist Karen Heese told MyBroadband the web-based intelligence service anticipated that protests would surge after the lockdown.

“We have seen a drop-off in protests this year on Municipal IQ’s Municipal Hotspots Monitor, but there are still the same underlying conditions that drive social dissent and are all the more pronounced by COVID-19,” she said.

“These may be quite intense like in Mitchells Plain, but are also likely to be fewer than normal given tighter policing,” she stated.

Heese said certain protests may still revolve around service delivery, but it was more likely that issues around food and income security would drive protest action.

Nature of unrest

Cilliers said food availability will be a major issue driving social unrest after the lockdown.

“I don’t think organised labour protests will happen, but protests about the lack of work and lack of food is going to be a huge issue.”

This will most likely be a problem in areas where violence has historically taken place, such as in townships and informal settlements – where poverty and unemployment are rife.

The points of attack would be places where there are perceived to be food and resources.

“We are going to see the kind of attacks we’ve seen on delivery vans, maybe on spaza shops, and so on,” Cilliers said.

He warned that as with instances in 2008, 2015, and 2019, rioters may blame their actions on foreigners once again.

“It could again take a xenophobic orientation, as we have seen in the past, because it’s always easier to scapegoat,” he stated.

Heese added she was hopeful the increased grant measures announced by the president on 21 April would help mitigate the protesting.

No more blanket ban

In order for the government to stabilise the situation and return circumstances to normal, Cilliers said it would have to adapt its approach to permissible economic activity.

“We need to move away from a punitive approach to an approach where in every area possible that you can relieve pressure, you should be doing that,” he explained.

“The question needs to be asked: where does the lockdown still need to hold and how do you manage that, rather than where you can relieve it,” Cilliers said.

He admitted that allowing certain economic activities and services to return to communities which show a lower risk of virus transmission would perhaps be viewed as discriminating against areas with a heightened risk.

“This, of course, will be a problem because you accentuate the rich-poor divide,” Cilliers stated.

“We have to find a way to move towards a community-based response. I think you can only do that with real ongoing education, communication, and mobilisation of leadership at every level,” he explained.

Cilliers said political leadership during the crisis has been exemplary, but the execution of its plans has been lacking.

Now read: Economic crisis and jobs bloodbath loom in South Africa

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Prepare for food looting and protests in South Africa