South Africa Has Seen One of Its Worst Protests in Decades

Photo source: Financial Times

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The anarchy and political inaction in South Africa in July 2021 for just over a week changed the rainbow nation. More than three hundred people were killed, and countless were injured. The magnanimity of the protests kept its establishment, its police and intelligence clueless.

Several companies reported that more than thousand vendors had been pillaged. Dozens of fast-food restaurants mostly across KwaZulu-Natal, a stronghold of Former President Jacob Zuma, and Gauteng were destroyed as well. Goods worth between $400 million and $1 billion had been stolen or destroyed, according some initial industry estimates. The infrastructure of malls, shopping centres, and liquor outlets, was damaged. Trucks were burned and livestock was killed. Dozens of factories producing food and medicine were looted as well. Combined with attacks on clinics, hundreds of thousands suffering chronic conditions were left without medication in KwaZulu Natal, which has some of the highest rates of HIV in the world. However, according to Financial Times, nowhere was the economic impact more evident than in Hammarsdale, where looters targeted some of the many retail warehouses and manufacturers that extend for miles alongside a key motorway route from Johannesburg to Africa’s biggest container port in Durban.


The unrest is a reflection of much deeper economic and political problem, that goes to the heart of the ANC-run South African state. Mohammed Jameel Abdulla, who works at Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education in Cape Town, ascertained that the riots were probably made up of multiple forces, often unknown. These mysterious factions participated in the protests because the moment had presented them to feed their families, and give them access to food under dire circumstances, due to dredges of poverty. They maybe part of the community, living in ramshackle wood-and-corrugated-iron shacks, in crime-ridden slums without toilets, jobs or hope, contrasting the lives of affluent who buy themselves opulent villas, Ferraris, Bentley convertibles, and large farms.


Also, it is not surprising that individuals from well-known working class organisations, strongly anti-ANC in all forms, had also indulged in looting, as the course of events allowed for sorely needed aid to struggling communities. Internet activism was also seen as widespread.


The unrest in South Africa had other dynamics to it as well. In an article in Financial Times by Joseph Cotterill, he wrote: ‘Even before this phase of violence, a blend of political and criminal violence had been disrupting Durban’s economy. Activists said some officials from the ruling African National Congress and criminal syndicates had merged into protection rackets, which demanded concessions or a piece of the action from businesses and then fight, and frequently kill, over the spoils.'


Amid the protests, there were also food disruptions in distribution centres and road networks. Many people faced starvation with little or no access to food, and some were even seen boiling wild plants for food. While the incumbent South African President Cyril Ramaphosa had promised ‘immediate food relief,’ few people had received anything.


It is apparent that people who lived side by side, ultimately turned against each other. There were also personal accounts where racial profiling had been done by the police, where they pulled people out of their cars and beat them.

The head of Statistics South Africa, Risenga Maluleke, revealed that it could take years to rebuild damaged infrastructure, and that small businesses ‘will find it difficult to rise from the ashes.'

The unrest had eventually reached Johannesburg, the commercial capital of South Africa. Police also discovered several large caches of ammunition in Durban in July 2021, which Minister of Police Bheki Cele revealed belonged to people who were instigating the violent riots in the coastal city. Many of the targets, according to police, were attacked during first six days of violence. It had reflected a campaign of deliberate sabotage aimed at making the country ungovernable especially KwaZulu-Natal, and later parts of Gauteng in protest against the jailing of Former President Jacob Zuma. 

The protests and the violence it produced ran into two phases. While regional analysts believe that the first phase was coordinated, and well planned, the second phase, according to them, was not so centralised in instigation. There were road blockages in the first phase, and in the second phase police were incapable of curbing the anarchy, even being fearful of coming out of their police stations.

Jacob Zuma, who had been taken into custody after he denied testifying at the Zondo Commission, rebuffed his allegations of corruption, during his term as president from 2009 to 2018. 


He had been charged with corruption in March 2018, mainly in connection with the South African arms deal, known as the ‘Strategic Defence Package’ worth US$2.5 billion. The case proceeded to the constitutional court, but during the trials Zuma appeared absent. 


In South Africa, there are some people who believe that the protests were a deliberate strategy by the political opponents of Jacob Zuma to stir more violence, and to force President Cyril Ramaphosa to make his ousting.


In a Guardian Oped, Jason Burke wrote: ‘Zuma’s supporters say the 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents.’


For his support, ‘the Free Jacob Zuma Campaign’, was started, which was led by two suspended members of the ANC, who issued an ultimatum to Ramaphosa, saying the president had 14 days to release him.


But if you look at his record, his rule cost the country’s economy more than $35 billion, as per inputs by Financial Times Africa Summit in 2019. The people most impacted by his corruption were the poorest South Africans. 


The jailing of Zuma, on corruption charges, had helped the cause of Ramaphosa, for enjoying power. He leads a moderate faction of the ANC, but his incumbency has also initiated a violent response in South Africa against him.


A part of the statement from Free Zuma Campaign read: ‘White monopoly capitalism and the parasitic black comprador capitalist that continues the exploitation of our people are our main enemies. Their removal from power and continuing control over our economy, and lives is non-negotiable and cannot wait a day longer.’

Zuma’s faction claimed to want to implement a ‘radical economic transformation’ of South Africa, which is one of the most unequal societies in the world. Despite having firm supporters and a political sympathy around him, his rule, resulted in soaring unemployment, services were deteriorated, and institutions were undermined by widespread red tape.

It is also evident that South African politics is mired by tribal divisions. In an article by Jani Allan for the RT, the author wrote: ‘Under Mandela, a Xhosa, Zuma the Zulu could always be contained because of Mandela’s stature. The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, however, has a much more difficult task reining in his predecessor and his considerable Zulu following, partly because he’s a member of the Venda ethnic group, a minor tribe from the northern regions of the country. These tribal distinctions are further bedeviled by the political factions within the ANC, which were writ large with the jailing of Zuma. Zuma is a Zulu in a party that accords hegemony to the dominant Xhosa ethnic group. And this subterranean fault line has been the fatal flaw that, since Mandela departed frontline politics in 1999, has seen it struggle to remain united.’ 

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, a legacy of the late leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, believes that the state needed to tackle the root causes of violence, or the country would go into the depths of despair, poverty, anarchy and economic mis-governance. Hence, the structural, systemic, and national divisions in South Africa are in a dire need of attention.


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