South Africans’ resilient response to riots

Faced with mass looting and violence for days, citizens step up to restore rule of law and to clean up their communities.

Volunteers clean up the streets after days of looting in Durban, South Africa, July 15.

After nearly a week of looting and mob violence in South Africa’s two most populous provinces, volunteers by the hundreds have begun to clean up their littered streets and help restore the shops they depend on. Hundreds of others who guarded their communities against the looters have begun to work with the soldiers finally deployed to KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The volunteers, together with local charities, community leaders, and business groups that worked behind the scenes to quell the violence, have provided an inspiring counterpoint to the image of a lawless South Africa – and to those who triggered the riots after the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. 

“The community has again – after the ravages of Covid-19 – dug deep to show resilience and bravery,” declared the news editors of City Press, The Witness, and News24.

The mayhem that began last Friday was on a scale rarely seen since the end of apartheid in 1994. At least 70 people have been killed. It also revealed deep divisions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and within South African society. In particular, the slow response by the president caused alarm. Yet it also forced nonstate actors and institutions to step up and reestablish rule of law on the streets.

So far, a key part of the social healing among South Africans has been gratitude.

“We are especially grateful to our loyal customers, many of whom have offered to help with cleanup operations,” stated the Shoprite supermarket group.

The ANC Veterans League, a group of senior party members who led the struggle against white rule, said it was grateful for the seven provinces that prevented and resisted the looting. “We would like to congratulate the law-abiding citizens and patriots for defending our constitutional democracy,” the veterans stated.

On Wednesday, after he had sent troops into the troubled areas, President Ramaphosa told political leaders that the government was “intensifying its efforts and working in partnership with civil society to stem public violence.” It was a welcome acknowledgment that governance in South Africa relies first on the self-governance of its individual citizens.

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