This past week not only revealed to us the vulgarity and the violence of a disastrous scheme to destabilise the country, but also the capacity for solidarity and community in the face of a total collapse of law and order.
In the startling spool of images and footage to emerge from convulsions of violence and looting that have taken place in parts of KZN and Gauteng and which spread after the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, many have stood out.
But one, in particular, begs for a moment of pause.
It is a still taken from footage captured by BBC videographer and producer Thuthuka Zondi of two-year-old Melokhule Manyoni in freefall — dressed in a nappy and red hoodie — from the second floor and then the roof overhang of a burning Durban building.
The child was saved when she was caught in a human safety net made up of the strong, collective, outstretched arms of strangers.
“All I could do was trust complete strangers,” the child’s mother, Naledi Manyoni, told the BBC afterwards.
In many ways, South Africans have been dropped, steadily and slowly.
Dropped from a great height by a government and a ruling party crippled by the Zuma kleptocracy, performative nationism and factionalism and into the arms of strangers and each other.
And while at first terror and fear gripped those who found themselves caught up in extraordinary scenes of apparent mayhem, it soon dawned — in that moment — that they, we, were on our own.
In the lacuna, many were killed, many lost everything.
The death toll so far is at least 72, with many businesses, already in the grip of a Covid-19 economic disaster, obliterated in the frenzy.
Then images began to emerge of people shot dead along roadsides, of armed, speeding residents hunting down suspected looters.
As the regions were gripped by unprecedented displays of lawlessness together with attacks on transport routes and infrastructure and egged on in real-time by agitators on the ground and on social media, we knew there was something different to the quality of this violence.
There was something very “five minutes to midnight” about it. It threatened to turn KwaZulu-Natal into a Kingdom of Ash.
It was different from the routine expression of frustration and protest citizens have become accustomed to deploying to engage a deeply flawed and unresponsive state.
But this past week not only revealed to us the vulgarity and the violence of a disastrous scheme to destabilise the country, but also the capacity for solidarity and community in the face of a total collapse of law and order.
Across the country, in the aftermath and rupture caused by the rampage, people began pushing back, cleaning up, confiscating looted goods and offering help and resources to those who had been affected.
These are the same South Africans who have been hammered by the Covid-19 pandemic in the worst possible economic conditions.
The same South Africans who have not had time to mourn loved ones, so many, lost in the pandemic. The same South Africans traumatised by hunger, poverty and unemployment. The same South Africans who have faced hundreds of years of political turmoil and abuse.
These are the same South Africans who found it within themselves during the first hard lockdown to feed the starving in a harsh cold winter.
The same South Africans who have been filling potholes, fixing infrastructure, growing food, caring for children on meager pensions and grants.
Taxi organisations, including the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), were among the first to announce they would be out “in full force” to protect shopping malls in Gauteng.
On Wednesday Santaco-KZN Durban Central Region taxi owners began to clean up the city. In KwaMashu communities began to sweep their own streets.
In Inanda, KwaMashu and Ntuzuma WhatsApp groups were set up to encourage volunteers and mopping up began.
“Please bring your broom, u plastic kadoti nokunye okungasisiza to clean. Sizozama sihluleke la esihluleka khona [Please bring your broom, plastic trash can and other things that can help us to clean. We will try and fail where we fail]”, urged one Facebook user.
Alberton residents united to safeguard their community at Gatwick circle. Over 500 community members, security companies, and police attended.
In Diepsloot, people, many of them volunteers, collected looted goods and returned them to the mall, in Mooi River communities began to collectively clean up the mess from the mayhem.
On Facebook, the Rebuild-South Africa Volunteers Group, started by seven administrators on Monday, already had 33,000 members by nightfall the following day.
“Here, we will connect affected businesses with our wonderful spread of volunteers. Please spread the word so we can reach those who need the help” reads the biog in the “about” section.
On Wednesday the Spar Group issued a statement that it would “restock and rebuild” affected stores in KZN and Gauteng.
“SPAR Group confirms that over 100 stores have been looted in KwaZulu-Natal & Gauteng during the recent unrest. These acts of wanton violence, intimidation, and damage have required some stores to close temporarily, or at least to increase their vigilance and security, with safety and security remaining their number one priority. However, SPAR is doing everything possible to remain open to support citizens and communities with the essential food and goods they need during this unprecedented period. Our policy remains to stay open and serve wherever possible. We are speaking to all store managers in affected areas, to continue supporting their communities if they deem it safe to remain open, but to ensure they protect themselves, their staff, and customers as a priority..”
The events that have tragically played out since Jacob Zuma’ incarceration have finally revealed what was always going to be his endgame — to not go gently or account for the estimated R54-billion siphoned off from the public purse for 10 years while he was president.
Those who benefited are prepared to go down with it all. We will not.
We deserve better.
We have shown ourselves to be extraordinary and beautiful — between the blood, bullets and wretchedness. South Africa, take a bow.