My 22-year-old step-daughter, let’s call her Lindiwe, joined in on the ongoing looting. She told me this over the phone.
“Bhut’ Bheki, I looted!” she said, her voice overflowing with excitement.
“Tell me about it,” I said, giggling. “Did you find anything?”
Deep down I was disgusted with her. How could you? I wanted to shout at her. You’ve got myself, your biological dad and your aunt. What do we not do for you? Is this how you thank us, by embarrassing us?
But I restrained myself. I pride myself in being a cool, forward-thinking father. Case in point: I let both my daughters call me Bhut’ Bheki, like I’m just their older brother. I simply would be devaluing my cool-dad currency by blabbering out my true feelings in anger. This is not to say that I do not register my displeasures. I simply don’t do it angry.
Back to Lindiwe. She described how looters cleaned Jabulani Mall out. “Yo Bhut’ Bheki,” she narrated animatedly, “someone was even dragging a whole fridge.”
The anticlimactic point of the story was when she told me the shoes she looted don’t fit her. The only way they would fit her, in fact, was if she lined both her feet in one shoe. She’s a size 5. The boots are size 10. “And they cost a thousand rand,” she was distressed, pointing out.
The point of this story is this: Looters might be hungry, frustrated and unemployed (Lindiwe is unemployed, yes. Not so much hungry nor frustrated) but they have very little to gain from looting. One might argue that a looted pack of maize meal – or, as in Thando’s case, a thousand-rand worth of boots that don’t even fit you – is about much more than the value of the looted item for the person looting. It is about the pride of providing for oneself. The irony here, of course, is that to loot, one has to forego one’s pride.
Back to my point about looting offering little to the person looting. I happen to think that riots, the current spate included, are planned meticulously. All the requisite chess pieces have to be in and move as desired for the game to proceed as planned. Genuinely poor people and the likes of my daughter are foot soldiers, pawns, in this complicated scheme. A riot will not stand to its name without a big crowd. This is where poor people fit in.
People going into a targeted mall have to have an absolute mob for looting to happen. They have to be in the hundreds, even thousands, for security to resign themselves to the futility of trying to stop them. This is not the law of looting, it’s simple mathematics. And the more people there are looting, the less there will be to gain per person. We also need to think: What could a burnt mall have on offer for us as people? A burning mall leaves little to be looted. If looting is the way out of our troubles, where does a burning mall leave us?
I dare say the destruction does more for the people who whisper incendiary words into our ears.
The ongoing riots are unique. They are happening in the midst of a pandemic. Imagine Zithulele joining the riots because he sees this as a way out of hunger, albeit for a few days. While going on about the business of disrupting the economy that gives to everybody but them, Zithulele and his gang block the road that feeds into and out of town.
The road happens to be a way in and out of a hospital. Ambulances and vehicles carrying medical supplies can’t reach the hospital or get out of it. Because Zithulele and his fellow rioters are genuinely angry for heaven knows why, they pelt with stones both the ambulance and the car carrying supplies to the hospital. Sanity prevails and they spare the ambulance. But not the other vehicle. They decide to burn it.
It’s been a good day in the office for Zithulele. He’s looted enough food for three months. He smiles thinking about how, for three months, whenever his family has breakfast, lunch and dinner, they will think glowingly of him. For the next three months, he will be the man. He takes pride in knowing he has done as a man should. He has provided. He runs his finger on the 55-inch smart LED TV he brought home with the groceries. Thus is the one thing that will remain when the food has long been eaten and flushed down the toilet.
Now imagine Zithulele a few days later. He is feverish and has trouble breathing. His wife Nombulelo recognises these symptoms. Her late uncle showed the same before he succumbed to COVID-19. He could have been spared had the hospital had enough oxygen. And a vaccination would have helped him had it been there then.
Zithulele’s diagnosis hits her harder than uncle Josias’ did. The hospital could have had enough oxygen – if only it could have gotten to the hospital.
It doesn’t matter how poor we get. We have more to lose looting than we have to gain.
Read about the ways in which the poor suffer the most during civil unrest, here.
Tell us: Do you agree with the author, that looters have more to lose than gain?