When protests against the imprisonment of former South African President Jacob Zuma for disregard of the court swept across the country last week, criminals and opportunists saw an opening and sparked an orgy of looting that was not seen in Africa outside of a war / p>
Some of the looters said they despised Zuma and he could rot in jail no matter what they want. The looting was also fueled by anger over poverty, unemployment and corruption, which reached new levels when officials and politicians looted Covid-19 aid funds as people withered in lockdown.
The looters weren’t all robbed. There were traffic jams as people crowded into their cars and made their way to clean mom and pop shops, supermarkets, warehouses, clinics and meat stores while the overwhelmed police mostly passed out. Some families brought grandparents and grandchildren with them for the robbery.
In particular, in KwaZulu Natal Province, the home region of Zuma and the epicenter of violent protests and looting, only a few places were spared, except those that were the citizens themselves armed to protect them. And on social media, a viral post showed the only other place that wasn’t looted – a bookstore. The contribution lived up to the stereotype that Africans do not read.
The insult “If you want to hide something from an African, write it in a book” is a well-known one, often taken up by Africans too, if they are Opinion that their compatriots are not literal enough.
It would be a lie to say that Africans are voracious readers. However, it would be just as wrong to say that they don’t like books. You probably spared the South African bookstore because they thought there weren’t any books worth ransacking and of course if you’re hungry you won’t eat a book. What you need is food, as evidenced by the many photos and videos showing determined looters dragging whole slaughtered pigs and cattle humps on their frail backs.
In 2013 rebels affiliated with al-Qaeda withdrew back from northern Mali. They set fire to buildings that contained the priceless Timbuktu manuscripts from the early 13th century during the Mali Empire. The insurgents who condemned the manuscripts as objects of idolatry did not end up destroying so many of them. Heroic Malians conjured away many of the manuscripts as they have for centuries in the face of invasions and colonialism.
Over the centuries, many have died for the books. They were celebrated in film and song. So Africans don’t just read. They died for books.
Our mother was a remarkable storyteller. When we were little, the only thing that made us behave was a promise that she would tell us a story. We all had books, but they were about little girls from distant lands named Cinderella, Snow White, and ugly ducklings. Nothing in them could beat the story of the cunning African hare, the unfortunate turtle, the wayward hen, the greedy hyena, and the fearless, spear-wielding warrior who comes down the hill to kill a cruel chief.
If I had to, I wouldn’t have stolen a Snow White book. Kalulu the rabbit, that’s a different story. Africans do not read or loot books because the books do not speak to them.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [emailprotected]