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Looters make off with goods at a store in Durban, South Africa, Monday July 12, 2021. Police say six people are dead and more than 200 have been arrested amid escalating violence during rioting that broke out following the imprisonment of South Africa's former President Jacob Zuma. (AP Photo/Andre Swart)

Opinion

In defence of rioting and looting

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WHENEVER I fly long distances, I always  buy a book to read during the journey; usually a book that piques my interest in something different and unusual – those types of seminal and compelling works that you don’t put down once you start reading.

There are several that I have read like that. From Flat Earth News: An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media, a 2008 book by British investigative journalist Nick Davies in which he exposes media malpractices on Fleet Street, Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad by another British journalist Gordon Thomas to In Defence of Looting by American author Vicky Osterweil.

Those are my sort of books, journalistic academic and investigative type of works. I like that.

In Defence of Looting is an interesting read.

I don’t believe in rioting and looting as a solution to political and social problems, unless that’s a last resort, but since I read this book I understood the argument for that as a strategic and tactical approach to leverage coercive methods for positive change in the common good.

Given what’s happening in South Africa, it would be good to read this one, especially those who believe in rioting and looting as an instrument of social change, and addressing injustice and inequality.

That issue loomed large this week in South Africa after protests broke out following the conviction and jailing of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.

Many agreed Zuma was in contempt, but should have been given a suspended sentence, not imprisoned.

His supporters naturally listened to his reaction: I have done nothing wrong; all I have said is that I wouldn’t appear before the Zondo Commission on state capture since he is conflicted.

The story between Zuma and Zondo is big scandal of friendship and betrayal, but that’s a tale for another day.

In the aftermath of Zuma’s incarceration protests broke in his KwaZulu-Natal home province before spreading to Gauteng, the country’s economic hub.

The protests, however, deteriorated into violence, rioting and looting.

This sparked so many theories of what was happeing and why.

Some say people were reacting to Zuma’s arrest, others say the masses exploded over their social and material conditions – inequality, unemployment and poverty- and yet others postulate it was an ANC political power struggle which had spread from the boardrooms into the streets.

All these postulations are true, except that they are not mutually exclusive. They are credible and can happen all at the same time. And they did.

So in a bid to build theories and explain the events, so many hypotheses arose, including justifying rioting and looting in self-righteous anger and in the name of justice.

The bottomline is that the rioting and the criminality involved shook the self-assured hubris of the political and economic elite.

The rioters embraced the idea, but couldn’t articulate it properly, they struggled to frame the argument, find a narrative, tropes and handle on it in the face of the official line that there was an organised uprising brewing.

In it’s locus of enunciation, Ostwrweil’s book addresses many questions currently being asked in South Africa today, such as looting of black businesses, destruction of jobs and worsening the plight of the poor argument.

And indeed characterisation of looters as mobs and criminals is also addressed.

But it doesn’t have a clear pathway on what happens after rioting and looting.

Yet In Defence of Rioting and Looting is a recent fresh argument for rioting and looting as one of the most powerful tools in ordinary people’s arsenal – the subaltern’s leverage – for dismantling white supremacy.

Looting — a crowd of people publicly, openly, and directly seizing goods; free shopping as it were — is one of the more extreme actions that can take place in the midst of social unrest.

Even the self-identified radicals distance themselves from looters, fearing violent tactics would reflect badly on the broader movement.

But Osterweil argues stealing goods and destroying property are critical direct,  pragmatic and effective strategies of wealth redistribution and improving life for the working class — not to mention brazen messages these methods send to police and the state to shake the status quo.

All beliefs about the innate righteousness of property and ownership, Osterweil further explains, are built on the history of anti-black and also anti-indigenous people oppression.

From slave revolts to labour strikes to modern-day movements for climate change, BlackLivesMatter, and police violence, Osterweil makes a strong case for rioting and looting as weapons that bludgeon the status quo, while having the potential to uplift the poor and marginalised.

In Defence of Looting is basically a history of violent protest sparking social change, a compelling reframing of revolutionary activism, and a practical vision for a dramatically restructured society that accommodates the poor.

That’s what South Africa needs. But then again the message was sent at a huge cost to lives and the economy – billions of dollars.

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