As the protests against the jailing of former South African president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court swept the country last week, criminals and opportunists saw an opening and unleashed an orgy of looting unseen in Africa outside a war.
Some of the looters said they despised Zuma, and he could rot in jail for all they cared. The looting was also fuelled by the anger over poverty, unemployment and corruption, which reached new levels as officials and politicians pillaged Covid-19 relief funds, as the people withered in lockdown.
The looters were not all deprived. There were traffic jams as people piled in their cars and headed out to clean out corner shops, supermarkets, warehouses, clinics and meat shops, as overwhelmed police mostly looked on impotently. Some families brought grandparents and grandchildren along for the heist.
Few places were spared, especially in KwaZulu Natal Province, Zuma’s home region and the epicentre of the violent protest and plunder, except those that citizens armed themselves to protect. And, on social media, a viral post showed the only other place that wasn’t looted – a bookshop. The post played up to the stereotype that Africans don’t read.
The insult that “If you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book” is a well-worn one, seized on often by Africans, too, when they think their compatriots aren’t being sufficiently bookish.
It would be a lie to say Africans are voracious readers. However, it would be equally wrong to claim they don’t like books. They likely spared the South African bookshop because they thought there were no books there worth looting and, of course, if you are hungry you aren’t going to eat a book. What you need is food, as the many photographs and videos showing determined looters lugging whole slaughtered pigs and beef rumps on their frail backs proved.
In 2013, as al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels retreated from northern Mali, they set fire to buildings housing the priceless Timbuktu manuscripts dating as far back as the early 13th century during the Mali Empire. The insurgents, who had condemned the manuscripts as objects of idolatry, in the end, didn’t destroy that many of them. Heroic Malians spirited away many of the manuscripts, as they have done for centuries in the face of invasions, and colonialism.
Over the centuries, many have died for the books. They have been celebrated in film and song. So, Africans don’t just read. They have died for books.
Our mother was a remarkable storyteller. When we were little, the one thing that got us to behave was a promise that she would tell us a story. We had all the books, but they were about little girls from faraway lands called Cinderella, Snow White, and ugly ducklings. Nothing in them could beat the story of the wily African hare, the hapless tortoise, the obstinate hen, the greedy hyena, and the fearless spear-wielding warrior coming down the hill to slay a cruel chief.
If I had to, I wouldn’t have stolen a Snow White book. Kalulu the Hare, now that’s a different story. Africans don’t read or loot books because the books don’t speak to them.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]