One example from our research in Mamelodi, outside Pretoria, illustrates this.
Its population growth has outpaced any type of state intervention, police control or service provision.
Working together, two groups have filled the political and regulatory vacuum. One is the South African National Civic Organisation. The other, the Phomelong Residents Association, is a local informal group headed by self-appointed leaders. Those wanting to build, do business or even transport goods through the area pay them or get out.
To finance their protest and political activities, the two groups plunder foreign-owned shops and businesses. Like the self-financing armies of old, protesters are given licence to loot. One leader reported that when protesters feel hungry, they go and get food from shops to eat or take home to cook. If shops there are closed, they go to those in other locations.
Through the distribution of resources and the eviction of foreigners, the associations legitimate their form of rule, positioned as gangster intermediaries. With popular support, they then demand attention from municipal authorities. Cleverly, their leaders borrow the language of continued black deprivation and need for “radical economic transformation” to legitimise themselves.
Another example of this indirect rule is Philani, outside Durban, a poor area largely neglected by local government. In early 2019 the Delangokubona Business Forum displaced and kidnapped about 50 foreigners living in the area.
Claiming to champion “black economic empowerment”, it accused them of blocking the economic advancement of poor black citizens.
It extracted ransoms from their families and friends, while negotiating with the government for their safe return. Successful on both counts, it positioned itself as intermediary and peacemaker — the de facto local authority.
As in other cases in the country, these groups effectively create multifaceted protection rackets. Increasingly (and implausibly) claiming to be military veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, they use violence to create instability and instil fear to extract resources and establish legitimacy.
These actions create powerful local forces that demand payment from any state development projects in the areas they control. This way, the state is able to preserve the appearance of authority and constitutionalism while allowing someone else to do the dirty work of keeping people in line. But trouble ensues when the developers can no longer pay or other parties are eyeing the booty — money, houses, businesses and votes.