Champions of SA’s poor?

I want to toss a few fresh ideas into the thickening gruel of discussions about our political economy – not all of which are beyond criticism and much of which may be unsettling . . .

The main contention is that we seem to have adopted forms of criminal activities, like brigandage and banditry, that include violent seizure of property by force or by threats of violence, and that have taken on a messianic character.

These types of criminal activities have marked societies for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and only in the last millennia or so have they been granted messianic status.

The children of Abraham may know from their religious texts that the theft of private property is as old as time itself.

The Bible, in Job 24:2, Exodus 20:15 and Deuteronomy 5:19, make specific reference to theft.

With any number of caveats and acknowledging definitional disputes, we find ourselves in a time of what the great historian, Eric Hobsbawm, once described as the “social bandit”.

This archetype resorts to brigandage and banditry on the country’s roads with cash-in-transit heists, dropping of rocks onto vehicles from bridges that span motorways, and hijacking of cars and of trucks which are swiftly relieved of their bounty.

In urban and rural areas social bandits loot and burn small shops, occupy property, and generally flaunt authority under various guises of “championing the interests” of people who are poor, homeless, hungry or landless.

These resemble Hobsbawm’s “bandits” quite closely, most notably for the way they draw on nostalgia and myths of historic pasts, the losses of virtues and heroism, of gallantry and the restoration of justice.

Stealing from the rich, or from hardworking poor who run small stores in communities, is viewed as gallant and part of the restoration of justice and of past glory.

Look at any image of looters, and you will see expressions of glee and triumphalism.

While there may be justification for the theft of food or water, there are two dangers that emerge from this new era of banditry.

It presents, in the first instance, a very potent danger of systemic lawlessness, and the way that it can eat away at social cohesion, erode trust and roll back any attempts to address poverty and inequality.

In the second instance, if it has not already been exploited, this banditry can be manipulated by venal politicians – especially by those who have vengeful or scorched-earth tendencies, or who stand to gain from non-conscious pursuit of goals.

In other words, a politician may simply make statements about taking private property, or stripping the middle class of its privileges, and disaffected people may see this as a green light to plunder.

Besides the daring machismo, and quite often the toxic masculinity and misogyny, that is so often part of gangsterism and criminal activities, we cannot completely absolve politicians or public intellectuals from manipulating emotions, struggle iconography and disaffection in society.

These tendencies were exposed by the reggae musician, Peter Tosh, during a Jamaican Peace Concert, in 1978, when he spoke powerfully about the complicity between rival gang leaders and their political sponsors who capitalised on criminal activities and banditry.

What was clear in Jamaica at the time – as it was in Europe, during the 15th century, for instance – was complicity between bandit groups (gangs) and politicians who sought to secure their own power base.

The concept of the social bandit, as originally submitted by Hobsbawm, has been criticised and revised repeatedly.

What does remain clear, even among his most strident critics, is that social bandits tend to be romanticised by nationalistic or patriotic rhetoric.

For instance, during the English conquest of Normandy (France) between 1415 and 1450, social bandits and brigands, whom I am likening to our own cash-in-transit or truck hijacking villains, were sometimes hailed as patriots and heroes.

In France these bandits were often regarded as noble peasants who resorted to banditry and brigandage to make a living, after they had been driven off their land.

The bandits were later incorporated into rebel armies during revolutionary wars.

In fact, in the early 20th century fascist leader Benito Mussolini recruited from bands of criminals who had been responsible for the most brutal crime and violence within their own communities.

Mussolini would describe them as heroes and patriots whom he called in to crush “internal enemies”.

The social bandit, that most noble, patriotic servant of the people which gave birth to the myth of Robin Hood, may be manifesting itself in South Africa today as the cash-in-transit gangs, and the gangs that stop, burn and loot trucks on motorways like old-time highway robbers.

Our own social bandits are driving out “other nationalities” – the Somali, Zimbabwean or Bangladeshi shopkeepers – and like Mussolini’s fascists they are targeting “internal enemies”.

For this, they are painted as heroes, patriots and worthy of messianic status.

After all, like the French Tuchin revolt against taxation between 1378 and 1384, they are attacking the rich, and those who have private movable and immovable property.