The July 2021 Riots

A thought to ponder

My enduring image of the 2021 looting will not be empty shelves or burning warehouses, but a short video of a boy, maybe 10 years old, carrying a MrPrice bag. He’d been stopped by a passer-by who went through his bag. It had a t-shirt or two, a pair of tekkie shoes, one 5-pack of underwear, and one or two other things, neatly folded away.

It didn’t have toys. Or flatscreen TVs. Or even food.

It had a few clothes, and a single pack of new underwear.

The bag was closed again, and he went on his way, in the grimy and thin clothes he was wearing, into a Johannesburg winter night that was at about freezing point.

There are many things to be said about attempted coups, and factional battles, and senseless vandalism, and the desperation of yet another COVID lockdown, and a terribly slow police response, and the community response that showed the best and sometimes the worst of us, and about how the ultimate victims of the looting are almost entirely going to be the people who can least afford it. And it’s all true and important, but also … not really anything new. It’s just where we are, the unsurprising result of the last few years, and also the last few decades, and also the last few centuries, as we take steps forwards and backwards.

But when the sun comes up in the morning, we need to get up, and put down our social media feeds, and get back to work. Cleaning up, building, teaching, healing, starting businesses, spending tax money responsibly, serving customers, processing paperwork, even sending emails. Because doing those things better is the only way I can think of that we can gradually build a society that is good enough for us all.

Not (just) so that looting doesn’t happen, but so that a 10-year-old child doesn’t need an outbreak of looting to get a new set of underwear.