Sixty-eight years ago, when I was four, my Scottish father and English mother took me from London to South Africa, to a seaside town 20 miles south of Cape Town in the Western Cape. This is Fish Hoek (pronounced ‘fishhook’). I was brought up here, and after working in England and elsewhere in South Africa, I have returned. I have lived through the rise and fall of apartheid, and the 27-year rule of the ANC. I watched the terrible recent events, which seem to have subsided. We are sifting through the ruins and wondering what happened, and why. South Africa has nine provinces. Two of them, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN, formerly Natal) and Gauteng (with Johannesburg and Pretoria), have been devastated by violent riots. More than 300 people have been killed and more than 50 schools in KZN have been ransacked; thousands of shops, including big, insured, white-owned supermarkets and small, uninsured, black-owned stores, have been destroyed; pharmacies and clinics have been attacked and trucks and buses have been set on fire. The main motorway from Johannesburg to Durban is often simply closed. The damage now amounts to billions of rand. Only bookshops seem to have escaped the looters, which might tell us something. Shops selling TVs, smartphones, freezers, furniture, designer clothes and luxury goods have been less lucky.
The nominal cause of the riots was the arrest and imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, our president from 2009 to 2018, a charming man with powerful supporters and the most corrupt leader in South Africa history. We were told the riots were in his name, but I saw very few pro-Zuma placards. In fact, there were almost no placards at all. Instead, there seem to have been more immediate causes: desperate need and greedy opportunism; political and racial rivalry.