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The recent looting of businesses in the South African provinces of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng provoked mixed feelings among social commentators in South Africa. Most analyses carried on television, radio and written media platforms such as newspapers and online publications inferred that, despite the trigger reasons being common knowledge, the looters were driven by poverty. Another perspective was the criticism of state failure to protect the vulnerable businesses by applying adequate force to end the looting, and thus safeguard economic security.

Political science students ought to have also found themselves divided along similar lines. For the purposes of this article, I will look at the social commentary on the events stated above through two lenses, security theory, and intersectionality theory. Or at least point out that the views of commentators mainly grouped themselves into two areas of study, namely security and liberalism.


Security theory frames security as a fundamental human problem, manifesting at personal, national, and international levels (Hu & Ge, 2014). The realist perspective thrusts the state into the position of providing security by acting against all events that may bring insecurity. Hu and Ge (2014) argue that while security is a salient human problem, the concept of security remains controversial due to its broad and sensitive nature. This leads us to an understanding that there may not be consensus on definitions of the concept of security in and among research communities focusing on security, even within the broader realist school of thought.

In light of the events of looting in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng provinces recently, the South African government came under criticism from commentators for having responded inadequately to a problem that required more force. These commentators held a view that the police were overwhelmed and therefore the military should be deployed forthwith.

After scenes of brazen looting of businesses, the government deployed the military, first to safeguard national key points, and water resources in line with available intelligence purportedly identifying water towers as being among the targets on the list of places so targeted. The commentators who pushed for more force to restore security also described the events as an insurrection, which was later echoed by President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his speech. Incumbent Defence Minister at the time contradicted the insurrectionary position, however as a political head of the armed forces, it is safe to see Minister Mapisa Ngqakula as being among those who worked to improve security and return the country to normality.

Apart from the state bearing the responsibility to restore and provide security to citizens, the proponents of security theory turn to be more conservative in comparison with those of intersectionality. This group that takes a security perspective wanted to see protection for the businesses that were being looted because they saw that as acts that were undoing the gains of the economy of which they are part. They would most likely have rejected a contending view that looters were themselves victims of marginalisation and were looting because they were poor and had no other option.


A more liberal perspective, however, sees looters not as belligerent criminals taking advantage of a dire security situation, but rather as victims who have languished patiently in the margins of the economy reaching the tipping point. This liberal perspective turns to be reversed in South Africa because liberalism is more associated, historically in South Africa, with private business class who would be more conservative in the correct application of the theory of liberalism.

For this article, I bring this down to intersectionality theory. Intersectionality will allow one to look at the marginalised people of South Africa as being among whom the looters would have emerged. Intersectionality is a theoretical framework by which to express the interconnectedness and interdependence of social dynamics, focusing more on the margins of societal intersections (Atewologun, 2018). This lens brings us to the point of understanding state policies that may have failed to address social issues, eventually leading to people of certain economic standing being vulnerable to the temptation to cause harm if it brings them temporary relief. It is the intersectionality lens that may bring us to the understanding that while the security perspective may have been silent on the possible reasons for this kind of societal reaction to incitement, poverty may have indeed played a role.

The view that looters were driven by poverty and not belligerence and criminality on the main, was the more prominent among the social commentators who thrust the responsibility on the state, arguing that economic policies have, over the years, failed to address deepening poverty and unemployment, which gradually brought the country to the tipping point.


Social issues are often more complex than most people imagine, and to address issues unemotionally, it is important for research communities in social sciences to provide sound analyses and bring understanding to mitigate against the reoccurrence of security problems, and advocate for policies that can succeed in distributing economic opportunities evenly in society. The state has a cardinal role in security and the development of inclusive social and economic policy.

The Development Team

Principal Investigator: Sydney Seshibedi

Content Writer: Sydney Seshibedi

Sub-editor: Lunga Dweba

Coordinator: Darrell Fraser

The GI ADVISORY is a research-based security firm, whose primary purpose is to contribute to safer communities and world order.  For more information about international security analysis and services, please subscribe to our website.

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