Law & order must come from our communities – Sakeliga’s Piet le Roux

Sakeliga’s CEO Piet Le Roux joined the BizNews Power Hour to discuss the wave of violent protests and looting that is currently wreaking havoc in South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal. Le Roux remains hopeful about the situation, arguing that local communities have helped to contain it. “What’s happening now is bad, but it’s controlled. It’s contained to a significant degree. It’s localised; it’s very bad where it is. If only the police were to handle this, it would have been – and even the army – it would have been a complete disaster. But we are seeing communities and businesses taking a stand. I think that is very good. So in this vacuum of state failure, we’re seeing a rise of decentralised decision-making, even at the level of personal and community security. To me, that’s very hopeful.” – Claire Badenhorst

Piet le Roux on Sakeliga’s purpose:

We have about 12,000 monthly contributing members. So we’re a nonprofit organisation and all the contributions from the members are used for our strategy, which is basically state proofing. It’s either reforming the institutions of the state or it is protecting members where those reforms aren’t sufficient or providing alternative ways and environments for doing business where there are insufficient state institutions. All we do goes into that. So these 12,000 members contribute to that but then our network is increasing and we are in talks and finalisation of talks with other organisations affiliating with us, Chambers of Commerce, [and] agricultural organisations. It’s good to have wide support. I think the 12,000 understates it.

They’re either individuals or they’re businesses. Both kinds of membership are possible with Sakeliga as well as affiliation if you’re a Chamber of Commerce. Sometimes we find that, especially if the businesses are large, then maybe it’s easier for an individual executive or shareholder or owner to become a member in his own name rather than in the business name. But we are also grateful that many companies find it easy to associate, even when what we do is sometimes a little bit confrontational. We have strong opinions on the extent to which government shall interfere or not, and that can be difficult if you’re on the radar.

On Connie Mulder and Solidarity:

I used to work for Solidarity a number of years ago at the Research Institute, and so I have a good understanding of that organisation. We are certainly, from Sakeliga’s side and from Solidarity’s side, we’re friends even though we are independent organisations and have different memberships and governance systems and so on. I think that the Solidarity movement and all its affiliated organisations are extremely important for maintaining law and order and a flourishing society.

The historian Hermann Giliomee often refers to the British historian Arnold Toynbee, who in the 1950s wrote a short reply to a journalist in South Africa asking him about his thoughts on the future of South Africa. That was shortly after the National Party came to power, etc., and Toynbee replied to say that in South Africa you are about to face a problem that the rest of the world is due to face, not in the unforeseeable future, which is, and these were Toynbee’s words, the annihilation of distance through the use of western technology or the application of western technologies. I think South Africa – we like to think of it as a country, but it’s actually a very big and diverse region. It’s much larger than most countries in the world and it could just as well have been a number of federated smaller countries or smaller states. So it’s a microcosm of a problem that certainly is relevant to the whole world and that is, how do diverse cultural groups, regional groups that have interactions on a commercial and a social level, how do you develop the institutions politically and commercially to navigate these different expectations?

So in South Africa, I think Afrikaners, because they tend to have a larger cultural awareness and maybe other groups in South Africa, they are more attuned probably to this challenge, and they have put lots of thought in it. I don’t think that it’s a unique problem to South Africa, but I think that South Africa and Afrikaners within that, but all the other groups as well, we do have an advantage over the rest of the world that we are faced with Toynbee’s challenge, maybe 10, 20, 30 years before the rest of the world has to figure this out. Other places in the world haven’t. Europe, the US, they haven’t figured out this and they will have to and we are trailblazers in that regard.

On the looting and violence over the past few days: 

We’ve seen distressing scenes and we’ve seen these scenes and we will see them being broadcast internationally and that will certainly not reflect well on South Africa as a destination for business and investment. It won’t be good for sentiment, for reinvesting and maintaining capital, and so on. And it’s completely understandable. But I’ve seen something very hopeful through this.

Jacob Zuma is a spark in a powder keg, and I think Frans Cronje from the Centre for Risk Analysis put this well, we have to analyse the powder keg to understand what’s happening. We could have had this spark in the powder keg without a community and without a business response, without a forceful response, and we have seen a forceful response. It’s not nice to see, but the only thing worse to see than a forceful response from businesses and communities protecting their property, protecting the lives and livelihoods of their communities, and taking hands with cultural communities different from themselves – and we’ve also seen that.

Without that, we would have seen something much worse, which was destruction and looting, uncontrolled. What’s happening now is bad, but it’s controlled. It’s contained to a significant degree. It’s not like the whole country is on fire. It’s localised, it’s very bad where it is. If only the police were to handle this, it would have been – and even the army – it would have been a complete disaster. But we are seeing communities and businesses taking a stand. I think that is very good. So we’re seeing in this vacuum of state failure, we’re seeing a rise of decentralised decision-making, even at the level of personal and community security. To me, that’s very hopeful.

On the president’s address on the protests:

To me, the president’s address was still typical of centralised decision-making. I’m struggling to remember if he if at all did this – but if he did, it was very by the way – acknowledging that the reason this situation is contained to the degree that it is is definitely through the response from communities and businesses. We have not seen the president encouraging that. We have seen him saying you should not take the law into your own hands, but that needs to be a qualified statement. Yes, one should not act unlawfully and meet our judgment – you should do that in an orderly way and there are institutions for that. But in an emergency, it is important in the absence of police or state law enforcement, it is not only legitimate, but it is required for businesses and communities to take a stand. I would have welcomed it if the president encouraged that in a responsible way. It’s no use saying that it shouldn’t happen or pretending that it doesn’t happen. It’s going to happen. What is now required from leadership is to steer that in a lawful and an orderly way.

On the government’s attempt to pass gun laws: 

I think that what we’ve seen now over the past few days was making it very unlikely that the government will succeed in passing the legislation that they intend to, and if they intend to, I don’t foresee an easy way for them to actually apply such legislation. To my mind, such legislation would be unlawful. That is in contradiction of the requirements of a constitutional order, disarming the citizenry. So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there, but I don’t see a reason to obey unlawful legislation, but that’s for the future.

So thankfully, as you say now, citizens and businesses were able and still are, as we speak, able to protect and create protective barriers not only around their communities but also for the police. I’ve seen some footage, and you’ve and the viewers would have seen it, where the police really depended and benefited from the contributions of the communities in supporting the police. You know, it’s easy to knock the police and say they’re not doing their job, but when you’re understaffed, you’re five policemen in a vehicle or two facing a crowd of hundreds of people running at you, you can’t stop that mob. You need community support. So hopefully this also is cause for the government to reconsider their position and understand that the order in South Africa, even from a self-interested perspective, if you’re the ANC, depends on an armed citizenry.

On telling Sakeliga’s members that the looting warrants a ‘forceful’ response from business and organised community structures:

Forceful means to react defensively to the extent that it is required to stop an unlawful act from happening. We’ve seen that from businesses and we’ve seen that from communities. I discussed it with Russell, even though Russell Lamberti will only be joining us in September, we had a session yesterday thinking about how should we understand what’s happening, and to our minds, it’s important to underscore the legitimacy of a forceful response. You will see if you analyse various statements or comments, you will see that support for a forceful response that is correspondent to the level of the threat is not forthcoming from all quarters as it should. That’s the point that we mean when we say it warrants a forceful response. In general, the reaction that we’re seeing from businesses and communities to protect their lives and their livelihoods of themselves and those around them is a warranted reaction.

On the police being impotent:

If you’re with two or three or four policemen and you have to manage a crowd of hundreds of people running around and looting, I can see how it can be. You can stand there impotent with somebody filming you because you don’t know what to do. You haven’t been trained. You simply don’t have the numbers. So I have some understanding for that. But away from the isolated incidents, in general, what we’re seeing is the way the police and the army and the security forces in these areas have reacted is insufficient and does not inspire trust. When we look at the situation, it’s not evident that the police is capable, nor that the army’s interventions are sufficient. And so it does not inspire confidence. And again, this just underscores the importance for a response from the communities and the businesses and private security, etc.

On where it will all end: 

The end is up to us; the end is not a given. So where I want this to end up and where I see room for strategic intervention is if, and I’m speaking from a business organisation perspective, if we can – as businesses – pool our capital and our resources to develop the institutions to maintain order in the areas where we are active. We can’t solve all the problems for everywhere in South Africa at the same time. But I can see a future where Chambers of Commerce move away from the just chatting and networking idea to an idea of we are the institution, we as businesses, as a chamber, we form the institution that is responsible for an orderly business environment. And if the government can help us in that, well, great. But if the government is absent or the state is absent, then we are going to fill that void through private security, through working with neighbourhood watches, through the contributions of our members. We are going to take responsibility for creating an orderly commercial district and we’re going to do that in cross-cultural cooperation. We are going to do that working with community leaders in different sectors and institutions.

That’s a future that is an option and it’s a future that becomes viable paradoxically as the state fails because if the state was very strong and it was able to maintain its monopoly on violence, then it would have been very hard to develop these parallel institutions. But as the state loses its ability to crowd out private initiative, we have the option of creating that from the ground up. It’s not easy. Maybe it sounds a little bit abstract, but history is full of examples of this happening and I can see a future in South Africa where we can work to build this. I can also see a collapsed state. Parts of the world become uninhabitable from time to time. That is a possibility but there is a real chance of developing something else along the side. It’s not that easy, but it has been done. We can do it again.

Either lawful people maintain law and order or it becomes a war zone. Either we become Somalia or Ethiopia – not that I know that much personally of what’s going on there – or we become a country where the institutions of civil society and of business find ways to cooperate with the state, where it’s possible and where it’s apposite and develop capabilities of its own to make sure that the side of law and order wins.

On what we can expect in the next five years: 

Lockdown has truncated some of the developments in South Africa, so the underlying foundations on which these unrests and incidents feed were accelerated by lockdown. We’ve been warning of this for the past year on your show. Many people have warned of this and people took a sledgehammer to a Swiss clock and thought that everything will be fine. But we have added millions of people to the unemployment numbers and to the hungry numbers so something’s going to give, and we’ve disrupted society. So there is an acceleration. I hope that we can get out of this lockdown situation and get back to normality. That will certainly give us extra time.

Likely in the next five years, we will see an increase in state failure and a decrease in the capacity of the state to maintain law and order and other kinds of services and infrastructure. But I can see this future happening where businesses and communities across the country – some towns, not all towns, have found ways to maintain infrastructure, to provide services, to maintain law and order, and we’re going to see a more and more divergent South Africa. Some parts are going to look good and some parts aren’t. So in five years, I think some parts of the country are going to look worse and some parts of the country are going to look better, but not thanks to government, thanks to private and community initiative.

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