An absent state caught between looters and community militias

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An absent state caught between looters and community militias: A ‘Mad Max’ future Scenario for South Africa?

By: Dr. Petrus de Kock

Key terms: State Security Capacity, Militia formation, Insurrection, Asymmetric conflict, Non-marginal risk.

Summary: This Analysis Note argues, regarding the recent alleged attempted insurrection against the South African state, and subsequent acts of mass looting, that if in the long term the state security apparatus remains deficient, and incapable of protecting the citizenry (who had to rally in community and neighbourhood civic militia formations, to protect their property), at a time when the state authority is allegedly being challenged, then serious red lights have to start flashing on the dashboard of those steering the ship of state.

Looting in SA

Current developments in South Africa have exposed some weaknesses of state capability, that several commentators and analysts suggest, indicate the onset of a state failure phenomenon in South Africa. This article explores this crucial theme, emphasising that while South Africa may not be near state failure, as seen in extreme cases such as Somalia, however, lawless acts of looting, combined with an alleged attempted insurrection against the democratic South African state, raise fundamental questions that require detailed analysis. 

The Social Contract, that underlies the relationship between citizen and state, is at a very basic level anchored in the surrender of personal freedom to some extent, and money (tax), in exchange for the ‘greater force’ of the state, to ensure safety of the citizenry/society, economy, and state. 

The coercive absence of the state

In recent events in Kwazulu-Natal (KZN), and Gauteng, the state was evidently coercively absent, leaving citizens to either freely participate in the looting and destruction of private property and business premises, or, had to mobilise in neighbourhood or community militias, to provide protection. While these are commendable actions, it should however be noted that if in the long term the state security apparatus remains deficient, and incapable of protecting the citizenry, and property, at times when the state authority is allegedly being challenged, then serious red lights have to start flashing on the dashboard of those steering the ship of state. 

An alleged attempted insurrection

If, as President Ramaphosa had argued, incidents that engulfed KZN and Gauteng provinces, were in fact, an attempted insurrection against the democratic state, we would like to make a few observations. 

In some media the terms such as ‘insurrection,’ ‘insurgency,’ and even ‘coup,’ are used loosely and interchangeably. But, none of these fully apply to the unique political situation that unfolded around the build-up to the imprisonment of former President Zuma, and more importantly the utterly destructive aftermath thereof. 

Essentially this note explores the signs of militia activity around the mobilisation of Umkhonto we Sizwe veterans, and the Royal Guard of the Zulu King, at Nkandla the weekend before former President Zuma’s arrest. Additionally, statements made by political leaders assembled there at the time, indicated that the state may be challenged by a somewhat belligerent political force, from inside the ruling party. The rest is history as they say.

If one accepts, for a moment, that what unfolded, was indeed the spark of what was an attempted insurrection against the South African state, it is highly instructive to look at the methods those who planned it, deployed. 

Are asymmetric methods deployed by the ‘insurrectionists?’

The mass looting, and apparent lawless abandon with which thousands of citizens ransacked businesses, is but the outcome of what were clearly well laid plans to spring a political action, in classic asymmetric style, on the state, and authorities. 

The term asymmetric style, used above, refers to a well established discourse in military doctrines, that has become a standard feature of late twentieth- and early twenty-first century warfare. 

Insurgencies, and global terrorism phenomena are all, to some extent, executed within the broad parameters of asymmetric actions. This means that conflicts unfold not as the confrontation between conventional military forces, fighting only for control of physical territory or disputed ‘assets’, but, as with globalised terror – the war front can potentially be anywhere: a crowded London city bus, New York’s World Trade Center, or members of the US Congress receiving letters laced with anthrax. 

Of course, asymmetric warfare unfolds in both physical battle spaces, and in the digital domain – it is the latter that morphs into information warfare, hacking, fake news dissemination, the AI policing of social media, and the whole gamut of ills that has befallen public debate in the era of totalitarian virality. 

The ‘soft underbelly’ of the economy

But, back to the South African case. It is evident that the proverbial ‘soft underbelly’ of the economy was the target of whoever tried to challenge the sovereign authority of the South African state. Meaning that unexpected economic targets came into the proverbial cross-hairs, such as: warehouses, shopping malls, pharmacies, shops, factories. Reports also indicate that cellular service provider MTN noted attacks on cell phone towers (reportedly more than 100), and water infrastructure. 

In the more ‘classic’ understanding of insurgency, or of terror strikes on a state, conventional thinking might expect disaffected political forces to strike at ‘hard targets,’ such as national key points, critical infrastructure, or targets that symbolise the authority, and power of the state. If indeed the country saw an attempted insurrection in recent weeks, the means/methods deployed to strike at the sovereign (state & implicitly government), via unlikely/asymmetric economic targets, is a major cause for concern. 

If the theory of a recent attempted insurrection against the constitutional democratic order holds water, it means the South African political-economic landscape shifted dramatically. It means that an invisible battlefront has been opened that puts just about any business premises at risk.

Community militia formation

Once again, it is commendable that communities organised themselves to protect some properties from looters and arsonists. However, South Africans require an answer to the glaring question: where were the law enforcement agencies, and where were instruments of the state entrusted with the responsibility to protect, and why was a coercive power vacuum created by the absence of law enforcement entities of the state?

The coercive absence of law enforcement agencies led to a vacuum citizens either filled with violent acts of looting and rampant mass crime, or, by filling the law enforcement vacuum with baseball bats, pangas, side arms, and buckshot to protect life, limb, home, and mall. It is quite astonishing that reporters from both the state broadcaster, and private media networks shared live footage, for nearly a whole seven days with South Africa – and the World, showing streets devoid of law enforcement, but filled with waves upon waves of destructive looters. 

On the opposite extreme media reports showed images of tired community members ‘manning’ barricades 24/7, while having to scrounge for food and medicines. The latter are sights usually reserved for countries in the real throes of armed civil conflict. These images are a stark and dramatic warning of a potentially ‘Mad Max’ future scenario in store for South Africa if the country further ventures down the current path.

Looters & Community militias: two forces that cannot co-exist in a young democracy

These two forces, the one of mass-crime & looting, and the other of civil militia formation to protect life and limb in the absence of the state, cannot coexist in one very young democratic society, for too long. Be it also noted that for the state to be potentially challenged from inside the ruling party, adds even more fuel to the worry fires already raging in the minds and hearts of citizens. But, as the saying goes: something has got to give. Already the social fabric is wearing thin under the strain of exploding unemployment, and social discontent brought about through direct and indirect consequences of efforts aimed at fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. 

South Africa, as democratic system, cannot afford its society to be further polarised along neighbourhood/community lines (with evident racial and ethnic tensions emerging) where one group protects itself with private means of violence, against compatriots that are in some instances forced to- and co-opted into crime and looting because of conditions of economic desperation. 

The catch-22 on South Africa’s risk & stability horizon

A classic catch-22 is emerging in South Africa’s stability horizon. If the state cannot fill the glaring vacuum of providing law & order through an efficient and well equipped police service, it is an unfortunate truth of political realities the world over that our society will retreat into enclaves of mutually assured ‘protection,’ provided by civic militias, that inevitably falls outside the authority of the state. Some might argue that these cooperated with law enforcement authorities. But, under conditions of political, economic, and continued social pressure, such militias could quickly graduate to armed forces actively resisting and opposing the state and its perpetually deficient security apparatus. If left unattended, such militias could become a permanent feature of the societal landscape, and can ultimately directly challenge the state – as seen in cases of state failure such as Somalia, Libya, or in war torn countries such as Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Syria, or Afghanistan. The latter are, once again, extreme cases, however, erosion of state authority, and militia formation are gradual processes, and the earlier it is arrested, the better. However, for this to happen, the South African state will have to come to the party and deliver on its part of the social contract bargain. 

It is clear that the South African economy might increasingly become the site of asymmetric conflict. This calls public and private sector leaders to engage, as a matter of urgency with conditions of non-marginal change and risks that are challenging the societal, and democratic status quo. This calls for new approaches to analysing risk, as well as new imaginative solutions to the socio-economic crisis threatening to tear South Africa apart. 


Petrus  de Kock holds a PhD in Philosophy and has distinguished himself as an academic, critic, analyst, and thought leader. Hard facts speak the loudest, and his unique skill is to tackle a question, or issue, with no fear of what results one might find. Through the years, and in different capacities, he has created, led, and delivered on multiple private- and public sector social, political risk, economic, and natural resource projects. He has advised corporations and public entities on geopolitical and sectoral/market dynamics and risks. He has been involved in, and actively deployed strategic projects in more than thirty African markets. Between 2012 and 2021 he was General Manager for Research, in Brand South Africa, an SOE in the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa. 

Petrus now works independently under his BuiteboerTM brand name.