South Africa: Eyewitness report of community self-defence against rioting and looting

Katlehong Self-Defence

On 21 July Marxist Workers Party members visited Zone 3 of Katlehong, Gauteng. We had learned through the media of the brilliant work of residents to defend their community from rioting and looting, in particular, at the Motse wa Lijane mall. This is the last shopping complex in the area still standing.

As we entered the township the only sign of law enforcement was one lone soldier manning a line of rocks (!) across the road as the only semblance of a checkpoint. Throughout the entire visit, we only saw two other police vehicles. Despite promises from the government and ministers, the presence of security forces on the ground, in reality, seems minimal.

The smell of burning was still filling the air even days after the height of the riots. We passed several closed and burned malls and shopping complexes. In the area around Motse wa Lijane, many of the small residential streets remained barricaded with rocks as a precaution. We began speaking to local people and handing out a pamphlet we had written (see below). One resident, a public sector worker who had been involved in the defence of Zone 3, offered to introduce us to the initiators and leaders of the community self-defence.

Our new guide agreed to drive with us and direct us to the main entrance of Motse wa Lijane. Before we drove off together, he pointed across the train tracks to a group of five or six men wearing hi-viz jackets. They were, in fact, a community patrol, standing guard at the back wall of the mall, keeping an eye on the foot traffic crossing the railway line.

We were forced to park our car opposite the mall, as the side road leading to the main mall entrance and car park also remained barricaded, this time with neatly stacked house bricks. Our guide introduced us to a group of young men on the other side of the barricade, standing at the entrance to a Sasol garage, which makes up one corner of the Motse wa Lijane shopping complex. Some wore hi-viz jackets, others a more elaborate uniform. A number were equipped with walkie-talkies. These were used to call the leadership.

They arrived moments later. After we explained who we were, that we had come to learn from the community, share our own analysis of recent events, and showed our pamphlet headlines – “RIOTS & LOOTING A DEAD END! ORGANISE TO UNITE OUR COMMUNITIES and Struggle for Jobs for All, Houses for All, Increased Social Grants and High-Quality & Adequate Service Delivery” – we were immediately welcomed, with that depth of generosity that only the working class is capable of. The leadership proposed we move into the mall and sit in their office to discuss at length.

On the short walk into the mall, escorted by a whole patrol of ten or so, the discussions could not help but begin. There was clear pride in Zone 3 over how the community pulled together and saved Motse wa Lijane. There was also an eagerness to test ideas that explain what had happened and what the future held.

On the way to the office, a group of women, pushing a shopping trolley loaded with flasks and serving trays arrived. They explained that the community patrollers were provisioned with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus hot drinks. The funds for this had been raised by the local community through a mixture of small business donations and individual donations.

As we entered the mall, patrollers were strictly enforcing Covid protocols – the sanitising of hands and wearing of face masks at all times. This self-organised enforcement was more thorough than most ‘official’ enforcement elsewhere! At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, in opposing the deployment of the army, the MWP repeatedly raised the idea that the working class was more than capable of ‘policing’ itself when it came to Covid precautions. The self-organisation at Motse wa Lijane set a shining example of how this was, and is, possible.

We arrived at the office, which was an empty shop, with a table and chairs set up. We had over an hour of discussions with a core leadership, including Pule and Tshepo. In the course of the discussions, we would come to call them “comrades” – that is how the patrollers and leadership refer to each other, just as we do in the MWP. Throughout the discussions, other patrollers came in and out. Some would stand for just a few minutes to listen, others for 10 minutes or more. Our pamphlets were on the table and people took them as they came and went. What was noticeable was the interest in them. People froze on the spot reading them! There is a thirst for understanding and ideas.

Pre-existing community structure

In the discussions, Pule, Tshepo, and others explained that self-defense was not ‘out of the blue’. It is built on a pre-existing community structure. Last year, some residents took the initiative to create a community watch organisation for Zone 3 called Crime Watch in Zone 3. They had managed to get sponsorship for the uniforms and walkie-talkies we had seen. But it was a small group, just a handful. They explained that the initiative was nevertheless popular in the community because it had reduced crime. They also had previous experience of defending Motse wa Lijane (although up to now the complex management had not been too interested) but other businesses and residences too. Last year when there were warnings that xenophobic violence could erupt they mobilised to defend foreign residents and businesses.

When the riots began, and then news of looting in Katlehong started filtering through, realising they were not enough they mobilised the community and got an excellent response. Around 200 men responded to the call to form patrol groups and man picket lines/barricades. Women and older residents banded together to provide food and refreshment through the cold nights.

We were told that before the full mobilisation was completed there was an attempt to instigate the looting of Motse wa Lijane. A vehicle with three men in, unknown to the community, had entered the mall car park. Patrollers took them on, even managing to catch one who was handed over to the police. The few local residents milling to see if an opportunity for looting would arise melted away in the face of this stand. The number of community members who mobilised sent a clear message rippling through the area: this is not happening here! Don’t even try your luck!

The Zone 3 comrades explained that driving much of the looting was desperate poverty, and, especially, mass unemployment. There was enormous sympathy for the suffering of working class communities. However, as they said, stealing a loaf of bread is not the same as stealing a TV. There were clearly criminal elements involved, as well – a “mixed masala” of motives.

But the comrades feared that poverty would only get worse if Motse wa Lijane were destroyed. For the community, the mall was more than just a few big-name retailers and banks there. The community did not own these. Indeed, the comrades explained how they have to fight with the managers and bosses to hire more people in the community. What was being defended first and foremost were the existing jobs, the small businesses, and the informal traders dependent on the foot traffic to and from the mall. This economic hub was a lifeline for this community.

The comrades explained that there was no leadership on the ground in the community and this had allowed crime to flourish. In this, there was agreement with the MWP that what is decisive in understanding recent events is the political vacuum that exists. But the MWP pointed out to the comrades that this was what made Zone 3 of Katlehong different – they had been able to, at least partially, fill the vacuum. The results speak for themselves – jobs, infrastructure, and even lives saved.

After we ended the meeting the Zone 3 comrades suggested leaving our remaining pamphlets so they could be distributed to all those involved in the community self-defence work. Executive Mukwevho, speaking for the MWP to a group of patrollers who gathered to take a photo together, said, “I’m from Soweto … I came here because I read of the efforts and initiatives taken by these comrades, and I came to look, and meet with them, to try to take whatever I have learned from this community back to my own community with the idea of taking this initiative and efforts to other areas across of province.”

The recent rioting and looting have shown the desperate need to build community organisations to fill the political vacuum. In doing so, working-class communities have revived the traditions and organisations developed in the struggle against apartheid. Structures developed to link workplaces and communities – the “locals” – reinforced the struggle against the bosses and the apartheid regime but also combated crime in working class townships. The degeneration of Cosatu has led to the collapse of these locals. The conditions have now developed for their revival. The new trade union federation, Saftu, itself born out of a desire to recreate the working class’ best traditions of struggle, should learn from these developments and seek to link up with them through its own locals.

The MWP is proposing that, as calm returns and the third wave of Covid retreats, the many communities that organised self-defence and clean-up operations should organise mass community meetings to build on the work that has been done. These could develop the different initiatives into permanent community structures that not only deal with crime, but try to introduce organisation and campaigns around issues of housing, jobs, and service delivery – tackling the underlying causes of crime and looting and not just the symptoms.

It is important to ensure that community organisations, including community-watch programmes, are placed on a democratic foundation accountable to the local community they are protecting. Being organised on a consciously anti-tribal, anti-racial, and anti-xenophobic basis is also crucial to their legitimacy. Such initiatives could be linked up, first at the provincial level, and then at the national level, creating the basis for the building of a new country-wide socialist civic movement.

Text of the pamphlet distributed by the MWP in Katlehong, Zone 3:

Riots & Looting a Dead End!

Organise to Unite Our Communities

And struggle for jobs for all, houses for all, increased social grants, and high-quality & adequate service delivery

Working class communities have been suffering from poverty, unemployment, poor service delivery and general government neglect for years. The Covid-19 pandemic and lockdowns have made the situation even worse. Unemployment has gone up massively. Small and informal businesses struggle. The R350 SRD grant was not enough and then it was snatched away again! Less and less money is feeding more and more mouths. Now rioting and looting have made the situation even worse in communities in Gauteng and KZN. More jobs have been lost, infrastructure destroyed and businesses closed.

The riots and looting were possible because of the huge vacuum that exists in working class politics. Over the years mass democratic community organisation has weakened and retreated. The weak structures and limited resources of metros, municipalities and the police are not enough to fill the space left behind. Criminals and gangsters often step in. In last week’s riots and looting it was the faction-struggles of the ANC leadership that spilled into communities and filled the space.

But neither faction can answer the needs of working class communities. Life got worse under the Zuma presidency; life is getting worse under Ramaphosa’s. Neither put the interests of working class communities first. The faction that instigated the chaos have shown they are willing to destroy communities and turn neighbour against neighbour in their lust for power and wealth. The government faction cannot even decide what has just happened! President Ramaphosa says it is an “insurrection”; his Defence Minister says it is not. But whatever they eventually decide the government is committed to cutting public spending on service-delivery and public-sector wages. It has no answers to mass unemployment. The conditions that led to the riots have not gone away. There will be further efforts to divide and confuse working class people. This time we must be prepared. Working class communities can only look to themselves and other working class organisations.

Some of the best traditions of working class communities have also been on display. In many areas communities have mobilised to defend shops and infrastructure from looting to clean-up and even to help recover stolen goods. Some of these mobilisations were initiated by existing community structures, Community Policing Forums, etc. Sometimes they have been organised simply by neighbours talking to each other. We must build on this excellent work! Communities must stay organised!

The Marxist Workers Party wants to have discussions with community organisations, activists, and residents who took part in, or supported, community defence and clean-up.

We want to discuss how we can work together to develop a programme for building mass, democratic community organisations. These can start to fill the vacuum in our communities and begin to push out criminality, gangsterism and anti-working class factional politics. We need organisations that are not only democratic and accountable, but also anti-tribal, anti-racist, and anti-xenophobic. The working class must answer the chaos of recent weeks with UNITY!

Please contact us to discuss further. Pass on this pamphlet to neighbours and community members you think may be interested. Let us meet and discuss the way forward! Contact 081 514 9449.


  • Organise against riots and looting! Create 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. Campaign:
    • For democratic community control of the distribution of staple foods.
    • For SA Social Security Agency to organise mobile payment units to pay social grants.
    • For the Dept. of Health 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.
  • No job losses! Pay workers! Big chains and franchises redeploy all employees and/or continue paying full wages whilst
  • Reinstate the Social Relief of Distress 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:
    • Fill all public sector vacancies (health, education and other services).
    • Reverse social spending cuts; increase budgets in line with social need for decent housing, clinics, schools, school meals.
    • Scrap electricity price increases cancel arrears – tariffs on a sliding scale of income
    • No privatisations. Insource all services and jobs. Introduce apprenticeships to address youth unemployment
  • 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 Working Class Summit 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