IN THE MIND OF A LOOTER
YOU South Africa|29 July 2021
As SA recovers from the recent unrest, experts unpack the psychology behind riots and looting
NASIFA SULAIMAN

IT WAS like something from a horror movie – crowds of people storming shopping centres around KwaZuluNatal and Gauteng, helping themselves to everything and anything they could get their hands on.

Trucks were torched, buildings stoned, roads barricaded and community members, armed with guns, sticks and batons, joined forces to resist wave after wave of looters on the rampage.

Protests are nothing new in South Africa – or the rest of the world. There have been at least 7 000 protests in 153 countries over the past decade, according to the Mass Mobilisation Data Project, a US government think-tank that monitors citizen movements against governments.

And there’s almost always a spark that ignites the flames. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2010, residents went on the rampage and looting sprees ensued. In the UK, the death of Mark Duggan, who was fatally wounded by a police officer, set off the 2011 London Riots which were marked by widespread looting and the death of five people. When George Floyd died under a policeman’s boot last year, protests erupted across the United States.

In SA, the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court lit a match that turned into a hellish bonfire.

There are factors that contribute to people – some of whom would never break the law under normal circumstances – becoming swept up in lawlessness.

We asked experts to delve into the psychology behind it all.

WHY DO PEOPLE RIOT?

Protests are often driven by people’s need for social change, says Annah Moyo-Kupeta, a human rights lawyer and advocacy programme manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconstruction.

“And at the root of most riots in South Africa is the issue of structural inequality, characterised by socio-economic issues and poor or lack of service delivery. Covid-19 has served to compound these issues.”

People resort to rioting and other violent behaviours when they feel that reasoning is no longer an option, adds psychoanalytical theorist Bert Olivier, honorary professor of philosophy at the University of the Free State.

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