The word “loot” first appeared in a British colonel’s handbook of “Indian vocabulary”, where the Hindi word “Lut” was used to signify plunder, to steal and pillage — in short, to signify the avaricious character of the colonised. So this argot, or slang, has its etymology in a highly racialised discourse that persists to this day.
Labelling the protestors as looters denies the political consciousness of those living in precarity, it unconscionably encodes a criminal stereotype over the poor and erases any justice claims that motivate their actions. Thus the word “looting” is part of the lexicon of racist discourse and its use for objective social inquiry must be called into question.
The social unrest in July is a complex phenomenon and may be ascribed to a confluence of three triggers:
- The Jacob Zuma protests, which served as brokerage for the ensuing unrest. In political violence literature the term, “brokerage” is used to signify events that precipitate social unrest.
My brief is to unpack how the looting and unrest was represented on social media. To do this I take as my foundational premise that language is a means of social construction that both shapes and is shaped by society. Critical discourse analysis is useful when analysing texts that may appear neutral on the surface but may be deeply ideological. I also use Stuart Hall’s theory of encoding/decoding in looking at the hegemonic discourses that shaped perceptions of the looting on social media. I inquire into how the codes that inscribe the curation of news is also an expression of dominant, hegemonic values that advance the interest of big business, corporate wealth and promote congenial images of the state.
In this study I differentiate between the visible and the invisible and look at what was foregrounded and what was backgrounded in these discourses. The visible looting on television is contrasted with the invisible looting of corrupt politicians, deployed cadres and greedy entrepreneurs of state capture. What was also invisible was also any concerted effort by law enforcement to stop the looting. What was visible was police kicking down doors in informal settlements, confiscating stoves, alcohol and groceries with brutal efficiency. Why the police were suddenly galvanised into action from a state of paralysis is a matter of conjecture.
Let’s look at Andrew Harding of the BBC in his headline news: South Africa riots: The inside story of Durban’s week of anarchy.
Hall’s oppositional reading would raise the question: anarchy for whom?. Whose voice resonates here? To the mostly poor people looting in Makro and Woolworths it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to stave off hunger for another week or so, to get the things only rich people can afford. For these people, Christmas had come early and lasted for a whole week. It is clear that many of the looters regarded their actions as justifiable and legitimate. As one explained, “it’s not stolen. I just took the stuff free from the shop.”
Hall’s reception theory enables us to unpack the unrest as a contested space of political and class interest. It is also instructive to ask ourselves, who is doing this naming and shaming in these discourses? It is those with political control, those who control the media and access to capital, those watching from the comfort of their lounges on big screen TV’s, exclaiming in shock and horror between a Nando’s and its fries, those holding privileged positions in the most unequal society in the world, woefully mismanaged by a government that promises much but delivers a pittance.
Hall’s oppositional reading would claim that the Makros, the Checkers and the Pick n Pays — the giant corporate multinationals — steal 40 hours every week from thousands of employees who, in return, get the privilege of barely surviving for another month. I spoke to a cashier at Makro and he lamented that he was paid just R20 an hour. So I ask you, who exactly is doing the looting here? These are the contradictions of capitalism, where shareholders and profit are valorised and the worker is trapped in a cycle of exploitation and low wages from which there is no escape.
The media portrays the looting by deflecting attention away from the justice claims of those living in precarity. Why are they doing this? Because they are owned by power elites who construct our social reality in dominant discourses that protect their privilege and wealth. Karl Marx tells us that in every epoch, the dominant ideas in society are those of the ruling class. Like a cheating lover, nothing had changed. Because our government, like all governments around the world, is in cahoots with corporate wealth to guarantee the sanctity of private property and preserve the status quo between rich and poor, by deploying 25 thousand soldiers on the streets for as long as it takes.
The unrest has politicised exploitative economic relations and given voice to the poor and disenfranchised in society. It enables us to see looting as a radical challenge to capitalism and its conceits by drawing critical attention to injustice, systemic inequality and poverty. By shining a spotlight on the marginalised and forgotten in our society, looting, then, has taken on a variety of political meanings. It signifies an alternative and accelerated path to social justice, and a way to call attention to the reality of unemployment and widespread poverty in South Africa. In its reporting, the media has backgrounded the relationship between social unrest and poverty and foregrounded the interests of power elites and a state that puts profits before people. The media has ignored the diversity and complexity of the social unrest and chose instead to depoliticise the unrest as a criminal episode. In doing so, it has laid bare the ideologically distorting effects implicit in its construction of social reality.