South Africa: Riots and looting a dead end – Build working class unity to win jobs and services for all!

Jacob Zuma, former ANC President of South Africa, whose imprisonment sparked protests, rioting and looting this week (Photo: Copyright World Economic Forum/Wikimedia Commons)

Since the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, South Africa has witnessed the most widespread unrest in decades. Tens of thousands of the poor, the destitute, and the hungry have raided supermarkets and shopping malls for food, clothes, and other consumer goods. The looting and rioting have seen instances of police outnumbered by the crowds, being pelted with stones, and put to flight.

At the same time, however, forces with entirely separate agendas have inserted themselves amongst those genuinely looking to relieve the suffering of their families. People between the ages of 21 and 59 receive no income of any kind from the state. Youth make up nearly 70% of the 12 million unemployed (40% of the economically active population). They are prey to the organised criminal gangs who took full advantage of the mayhem.

More significantly, behind these were the organised forces of the pro-Zuma Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction in the ANC, with access to financial resources from years looting the state, connections with personnel from state institutions, like the State Security Agency, and disgruntled ex-members of the ANC’s former military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) aligned to one of the factions it has split into – the MK Veterans Association, recently dissolved by the ANC. They paid taxi owners to ferry arsonists to burn and loot warehouses, factories, and infrastructure installations far from townships.

The death toll from the chaos has reached 117 at the time of writing. Over 800 stores, warehouses and factories have been looted and burnt to the ground – with damage estimated in the billions. Blood Donor centres and pharmacies have been vandalised. Vaccination centres in affected areas have been forced to close their doors even as the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic reaches a devastating new peak. The aftermath of the riots may be an even greater disaster. Fuel, food, and medicine shortages are real possibilities, especially in the affected areas. Over 200,000 people are currently unable to access their social grants, the infrastructure is closed or destroyed.

The Marxist Workers Party (CWI South Africa) condemns the instigators of the riots – the ANC’s RET forces. With their backs against the wall after suffering one defeat after the other in the “lawfare” with the Ramaphosa faction, they have cynically exploited the grievances of the destitute for their own factional ends. Responsibility for these developments lies squarely at the feet of the ANC, as a whole – both the Ramaphosa and the Zuma faction. This government must go!

The Marxist Workers Party opposes the deployment of the army. Its deployment during the ‘hard’ Level 5 lockdown in early 2020 contributed nothing but gratuitous brutality that claimed lives. Working class communities are already taking charge of the situation themselves. In many areas, communities have organised to defend shops and malls from looting, establishing patrols and pickets. These correct methods are increasingly being embraced. So too is the mobilisation of the community in “clean-up” operations. In Alexandra, community members have even mobilised to help recover looted goods. This gives just a glimmer of the decisive role that the working class can play in bringing calm to the situation.


Hunger and poverty are clearly the main factors driving the majority of those who have taken part in the looting. They also reflect the rage of the masses at the looting of both ANC factions. We firmly reject the idea that these are “protests” to demand Zuma’s release. Reduced to desperation some have taken advantage of the once-off opportunity to address hunger and procure consumer goods they cannot ordinarily afford. At the same time, what is unfolding cannot be reduced to spontaneous ‘food riots’. This is a dangerous simplification that describes only one element in the situation, obscuring the main precipitating factor – the attempt by one of the protagonists in the ANC’s factional civil war – the ‘right to loot’ RET faction – to press the most downtrodden sections of the masses into their reactionary service.

The disastrous levels of poverty and social deprivation are an explanation but not a justification. While it is the responsibility of Marxists to point to the underlying social conditions to explain the looting, we have a duty to oppose them implacably. The food looted will last only for so long. The consumer goods stolen will make no difference to poverty and mass unemployment, nor eradicate inequality. Many of the businesses vandalised, already struggling under the impact of lockdown restrictions and the economic crisis that preceded it, may never recover. The jobs they provided will not return any time soon and may be lost forever. In Durban alone, 129,000 jobs are estimated to have been destroyed in the riots.

Looting and the destruction of infrastructure is a dead-end incapable of ending the poverty, mass unemployment, and inequality that blights the lives of the working class and the poor. These are not the methods of the working class. The looting of shopping malls is at best aimed at the satisfaction of individual needs. At worst, it will add to the stolen goods stocks of criminal gangs preying on working class communities.

These actions do not raise the consciousness of the working class about the roots of their problem and what it will require to overthrow capitalism. It does not unite the class. On the contrary, it creates confusion and division on the basis of ethnicity, race, and nationality, but also between the employed and the unemployed.

The ruling class factional struggle

The looting of supermarkets for food and consumer goods is in fact a subordinate factor in events. The burning of trucks on major highways to disrupt supply chains, coal trucks en route to power stations, the vandalising of over 100 network towers, the burning down of factories producing chemicals, the destruction of local radio stations and pharmacies, paralysing vaccination centres, as well as plans to paralyse harbours and fuel refineries, etc. are not the actions of working class people in need of food. They are deliberate acts of sabotage intended to create anarchy, to portray the government and Ramaphosa, in particular, as weak, so as to clear the way for his removal and the return to power of the RET faction.

The rioting might have been spontaneous, but the timing was not. The Zondo Commission which has heaped revelation upon revelation about the years of ‘state capture’, opening the road to the prosecution of swathes of RET ‘cadres’ and linked business elites, had caught first the most senior leader of the ANC after Ramaphosa, suspended secretary-general, Ace Magashule, facing corruption charges running into a quarter million rand, and now the spiritual ‘father figure’ of the RET faction at the centre of the corruption, Jacob Zuma, sentencing him to prison. After this, it had become abundantly clear to this faction that not only were the taps of self-enrichment being closed but serious prison-time lay ahead without drastic action (see CONCOURT RULINGS | Judiciary Clears the Path for Ramaphosa as Capitalism’s Crisis Deepens).

The events outside Zuma’s Nkandla residence in the days leading up to Zuma handing himself in gave the public impression that the RET faction must be a spent force. The leader of the Zulu regiments that had massed outside Nkandla vowing to prevent him from being arrested, was immediately disowned by the Zulu Royal Family, with its prime minister, Inkatha Freedom Party leader, Gatsha Buthelezi, denouncing the demonstrations as treason.

However, the celebratory champagne Ramaphosa had in the glass of his raised factional upper-hand when Zuma surrendered, quickly turned into vinegar. Events in the next days confirmed the depths of the RET faction’s links to organised crime, often tribally based, and anti-democratic ‘rogue’ elements cultivated within the state apparatus during Zuma’s presidency. But the RET faction still had hidden reserves lurking in the shadows of society to call upon.

The riots have clearly been planned by elements spawned by the RET faction, especially in KZN and Gauteng, over a period of time. RETism takes the form of criminal networks masquerading as “Local Business Forums”, demanding a 30% cut in all government contracts, stakes in the construction industry, and snarling up major highways through the burning of trucks that claimed the lives of more than 200 foreign drivers with little or no consequences for the perpetrators. Thugs armed with AK-47s have been responsible for the abandonment of 84 infrastructure projects worth R27 billion up to March 2020. The recurring political assassinations in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) are linked to this gangsterism.

The state’s failure to prosecute any of the perpetrators created a sense of impunity. The burning of long-distance trucks on the main KZN highways was the signal for the outbreak of the riots. Clearly, the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC is aware of, and in fear of, these forces.

Reports are now emerging that the political management of the criminal elements instigating the riots originate in the ‘shadow state’ that Zuma had begun constructing during his presidency, centred on the State Security Agency (see SSA | Zuma’s Parallel State & ‘Dirty Tricks’ Campaign Against the Workers’ Movement). These are joined by disgruntled ex-uMkhonto we Sizwe elements, including the “Cadre” group in the SA National Defence Force that the ANC’s National Working Committee took seriously enough to meet with formally twice. They put forward a reactionary, anti-democratic, and xenophobic programme, including the cancellation of the coming local government elections, the mass expulsion of foreigners within 90 days, forced employment for the jobless on pain of imprisonment, and the imposition of new race classification system of the population into three groups – European, Asian and African.

The fires these forces have set alight are aimed at paralysing the county economically and opening up a political vacuum that the RET faction aims to fill, allowing it to leverage the political power they hope will flow from it.

What the RET forces were awaiting was the coming together of the necessary flammable socio-economic and political ingredients for a perfect firestorm. The extension of the ‘hard’ Level 4 lockdown, with no restoration of the pitifully small ‘emergency’ Social Relief of Distress grant, more job losses, and coinciding with the beginning of the RET forces’ sabotage campaign, ignited a fire over a swollen lake of social discontent. Unable to find a reliable social base within a socially weak black middle class, whose political allegiances are in any case split between them and CR’s faction, the RET forces are attempting to politically exploit destitution and the marginalised, as well as the declassed, lumpenised, and politically backward sections of the working class.

The mobilisation by the RET forces has been brazenly tribalist. They have attempted to inflame Zulu chauvinism portraying the jailing of Zuma as an attack on Zulu people. This is an insult to the proud history of the Zulu working class who first broke the power of the apartheid regime in the 1973 strikes and hosted the launch of Cosatu [trade unions alliance]! As we have pointed out before, these forces have been present for some time promoting racism and xenophobia. There is absolutely nothing in their methods or their aims the working class can support.

Working class must fill political vacuum

The conditions for revolution and counter-revolution march hand in hand. Right now there is an acute political vacuum on the left. Reactionary forces are taking full advantage of the disastrous social conditions to step into it. The unfolding events are a warning to the working class. It is likely that as both ANC factions damage each other more, the reaction will become more emboldened and desperate. More dangerous forces can coalesce. The working class must resist every attempt to turn any section of it into the social base of these forces. The working class must fill the political vacuum with its own organisations.

The community self-defence organisations that are coalescing must be consciously organised on an anti-tribal, anti-racial, and anti-xenophobic basis. The reactionary forces active in the chaos gripping parts of the country are consciously seeking to sow divisions. In KZN tensions are rising between African and Indian communities. The racist white far-right will also happily exploit the riots. Xenophobic attacks are a danger too. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the political cousin of the RET, has denounced the self-defence committees and encouraged racial animosity between Indians and blacks in Phoenix.

Community self-defence must be placed on a solid democratic foundation, with organisations and networks subjecting themselves to election and control by the local community. They should be linked up as part of an initiative to build a new countrywide socialist civic federation.

The Marxist Workers Party, for more than 18 months, has called on the trade union leaders to organise a public sector general strike on the issue of pay (listen to our Podcast #8). Their failure to do so, especially as workers’ anger has mounted under the blows of the pandemic, has helped grow the political vacuum and fuelled the audacity and arrogance of the reactionary forces now wreaking havoc.

The overwhelming majority of public-sector unions, under the pressure of their members, are rejecting the ANC-government’s latest ‘final’ offer. The ruling class will use the riots to put even more pressure on the trade union leaders not to embark on a strike. Their propaganda about the economic consequence will be stepped up massively off the back of riots. This must be resisted.

The organised working class needs to assert itself and start moving to fill the political vacuum. The lesson the public sector workers, in particular, must draw is that these events provide a very important opportunity to draw behind them the entire working class. The social conditions that have made it possible for these reactionary forces to exploit the legitimate grievances and anger of the unemployed and the poor have the same roots as the most serious attack on the public sector in the post-apartheid era.

The theft of the 2020 wage increase and the insulting offer is merely the centre-piece of the generalised assault on the working class through the most brutal cuts in public sector spending since 1994. An injury to one is an injury to all. The public sector unions must demonstrate to the rest of the working class that the attacks they are suffering in the workplace and that have plunged working class communities into destitution without decent services, unreliable water supplies, electricity cuts and hovels for houses, originate from the same class enemy using the same arsenal – the neo-liberal reduction in public spending to enable the government to finance the greed of big business through corporate tax cuts.

As we have explained elsewhere, the platform of a public sector general strike can be used to lay the basis for a general strike, capable of drawing communities, the unemployed, and the youth behind the working class. A genuine way forward in the struggle against poverty and unemployment can be revealed to the desperate masses.

The riots again underline the urgency of the creation of a working class political alternative – a workers’ party. Unfortunately, over the past several months, the left that has assembled around the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu)-initiated Working Class Summit has been in full retreat from this task. The MWP has been alone in defending the resolutions adopted both by Saftu and the 2018 Summit to move ahead with the creation of such a party.

We have proposed setting a launch date. For this, we have been lectured about how a new party is “premature” and that the working class “is not ready”. The discussion document we were asked to draft for the Summit, outlining a way forward, has been disowned by the Steering Committee, including by those who were assigned as co-authors, but in practice refused collaboration, and now refer to the document as “the work of an individual”. At worst, the document, and even the debate around it, is being bureaucratically suppressed, especially by elements aligned to the SRWP. Irvin Jim, the leader of the SRWP, has spent much of the last few weeks on Twitter pushing a pro-RET position in defence of Zuma!

The riots are a complete vindication of and demonstrate the urgent necessity for a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme. These events must act as a wake-up call to Saftu and the left gathered around the WCS. The formation of a mass workers’ party could offer a home for millions. Saftu must ensure that the WCS is reconvened and support the setting of a date for the launch of the party. The community self-defence organisations are a demonstration of the capacity of the working class to distinguish between what is reactionary and what is progressive and their willingness to act. The formation of such committees must be encouraged and supported. They should be invited to attend. Setting a date will convey to the masses a sense of seriousness. It will raise their sights above their immediate struggles in their own localities, and imbue them with a sense of common purpose and confidence that the unity of the working class is intended to put an end to the barbarism of capitalism and the socialist reconstruction of society.


Demands on infrastructure

  • Organise against riots and looting! For the creation of elected and accountable, anti-tribal, anti-racist, and anti-xenophobic community defence structures to protect infrastructure and save lives.
  • Nothing for communities, without communities! Build democratic, accountable, mass community organisations in every community. Build direct links with workplaces and trade unions. Democratic community control of all rebuilding decisions after the riots. Including campaigning:
    • For democratic community control of the distribution of staple foods.
    • For SASSA to organise mobile payment units to pay social grants.
    • For the DoH to organise mobile clinics/pharmacies to ensure medicines are available
    • For the banks to organise mobile ATMs.
    • For massive investment in the development of community infrastructure and services
  • No trade, no rent! Suspend rent payments of all small and medium businesses until it is safe for trading to resume.
  • No job losses! Pay workers! The big chains and franchises must redeploy all employees and/or continue paying full wages whilst
  • Reinstate the SRD grant! Increase it to R3,500. Introduce a Basic Income Grant of R8,000 p/m.
  • Organise our communities! Link-up community organisations in a country-wide socialist civic federation to unite and co-ordinate service delivery protests.
  • Reinstate the public sector pay rise and lift the wage freeze! For a public sector general strike as a step toward a general strike. Mobilise communities for the strike and take-up service-delivery issues.
  • The working class must fill the political vacuum! For the creation of a socialist mass workers party. Set the launch date! Implement the Saftu and 2018 WCS resolutions. Defend open and democratic debate in the organisations of the working class.
  • United working class struggle for socialism! Fight for the nationalisation of the banks, the mines, the commercial farms, the big factories and big wholesalers, distributors, retailers and supermarkets under the democratic control of the working class to lay the foundations for a democratically planned socialist economy.


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July 2021