A protester runs near a burning building during a protest on 12 July 2021 against the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Timothy Barnard / Sputnik via AFP
Q&A / Africa 10 minutes

Riots Reveal South Africa’s Enduring Rifts

South Africa has experienced its worst unrest since apartheid ended. Mobs attacked shopping malls and factories in two provinces. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Pauline Bax explains that the disturbances exposed the political and economic dynamics of a state struggling to contain deadly violence.

What happened?

Following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on 7 July, mobs rampaged through shopping malls and industrial parks throughout South Africa’s two most populous provinces, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, looting nearly a thousand shops and warehouses as an overwhelmed police force largely stood by. The riots also ravaged large parts of the port city of Durban, forcing the country’s largest refinery on the city’s outskirts to shut down temporarily, while roads to its harbour – sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest – also closed, disrupting fuel and food deliveries as well as key exports.

While the nation has since settled into an uneasy calm, it will take some time to repair the damage caused by its deadliest period of unrest since the end of white minority rule in 1994. Over five days of looting, at least 337 people died, many trampled to death. As videos showed civilians entering shopping malls with guns and petrol bombs, groups formed to stop them, in some cases leading to violent clashes between looters and vigilantes. On 13 July, the army said it would dispatch 25,000 more troops to the provinces after the government realised the police and the 2,500 soldiers it had initially deployed could not quell the disturbances.

The unrest kicked off the day after former President Zuma began serving a fifteen-month prison sentence that had been levied by the Constitutional Court as punishment for his refusal to appear before the State Capture Commission. The Commission was established in 2018 to look into allegations of public-sector fraud and corruption. It has been focusing on events during Zuma’s time in office. While many South Africans hailed the court’s ruling – which cited Zuma’s “ongoing assaults on the integrity of the judicial process” – as an extraordinary victory for the rule of law, the former president’s hardline supporters warned of repercussions, in some cases using inflammatory rhetoric. His son Edward, for instance, suggested the verdict was meant to divide his father’s ethnic Zulu people, saying there would be “blood on the floor” if his father was taken to jail.

As calls to free Zuma began circulating on social media, gunmen in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal barricaded a highway and torched 35 trucks

As calls to free Zuma began circulating on social media, gunmen in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal barricaded a highway and torched 35 trucks, borrowing a tactic used in recent years in xenophobic protests directed at foreign truck drivers. Turmoil then spread across KwaZulu-Natal and to Gauteng, South Africa’s commercial heartland, where both Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria are located. Zuma appointees who continue to hold senior government positions in KwaZulu-Natal largely shied away from condemning the violence, reiterating calls for the former president’s release instead.

Why did this happen now?

The unrest follows a period of deepening political fault lines within South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). The ANC governed largely unopposed in the decade after apartheid, but has since lost a portion of the national vote to an increasingly emboldened opposition. Zuma led the ANC during his presidency, but as allegations of corruption against him mounted, the party feared a backlash from voters and forced him to resign in 2018. He stepped down shortly after a bitter contest for the ANC’s leadership pitted Cyril Ramaphosa against Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa narrowly won and assumed the position of ANC chief in late 2017, enabling him to ascend to the presidency the following year.

For most of his presidency, Ramaphosa has moved slowly to sideline corrupt networks of state and business elites and to clean up state institutions, drawing opposition criticism for being indecisive. One explanation for the president’s caution may be that his hold on the party remains tenuous, with Zuma loyalists still controlling key parts of the administration and ruling-party infrastructure. Many of those loyalists who challenge Ramaphosa’s leadership are part of the Radical Economic Transformation grouping, a populist ANC faction that advocates land redistribution and ostensibly opposes what it characterises as neoliberal policies. The party is riven by other infighting as well.

Over the past twelve months, however, Ramaphosa has taken several decisions that seem to have tipped the balance of power within the ANC in his favour. In July 2020, he changed regulations to allow law enforcement agencies to use evidence presented to the State Capture Commission, making it easier to bring charges against corrupt officials. More recently, he took important steps to reinvigorate the economy, such as laying the groundwork for the sale of the bankrupt national airline, after months of wrangling with party elites who fiercely oppose privatisation of any kind. In May, the ANC suspended the president’s political rival and Zuma loyalist Ace Magashule as party secretary-general following the latter’s 2020 arrest on a slew of corruption charges linked to his tenure as the Free State province’s premier during the Zuma administration. This move – which many saw as Ramaphosa stamping his authority on the party – was perceived as a “coup” by Zuma backers. Thus, by the time authorities arrested Zuma in July, grievance among his political supporters was already running high.

Against this backdrop, analysts are now debating the extent to which mid-July’s escalating unrest was primarily the product of a political campaign by Zuma supporters in the ANC and elsewhere to undermine Ramaphosa and the state, or a spontaneous civil protest fuelled by hunger and deprivation (which, as described below, have been mounting across the country), or some combination of both.

Some social media commentators also saw the tensions at least somewhat through an ethnic lens. Zuma belongs to the majority Zulu ethnic group and his popularity in the mainly Zulu province of KwaZulu-Natal was instrumental in mobilising voter support for the ANC in previous elections. Calls on social media platforms to free Zuma often carried the hashtag #Zulu, while conversely some Twitter users complained that Zulu grievances were fuelling the looting spree. Ramaphosa himself suggested that “ethnic mobilisation” was behind some acts of violence before backtracking a few days later, saying he had concluded otherwise. For Ramaphosa to bring it up at all was unusual: the role of ethnicity in the country’s political dynamics is an extremely contentious issue in South Africa, and few officials talk about it publicly.

But while official accounts of what happened to cause the crisis have pivoted away any focus on ethnicity, they continue to insist that the recent events were an orchestrated effort at destabilisation. In an address on 16 July, President Ramaphosa said the events “were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy”. Other officials described the looting as “clear economic sabotage”. Authorities are now investigating at least twelve people suspected of stirring up the violence, some of them reportedly former senior intelligence operatives and ANC officials. Officials also say government action warded off still worse turbulence. “We did avert a lot”, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said at a press conference. “What you see is only a part of what could have happened”.

To what extent did South Africa’s struggling economy contribute to the unrest?

While it seems unlikely that the crisis was purely about economic frustration, it almost certainly contributed to the scale and intensity of the unrest.

As noted above, Zuma’s backers clearly played a role in igniting some of the violence. Moreover, the pattern of violence was unusual. Protests, especially walkouts and demonstrations against poor municipal services, are a common feature of South African politics. Public frustration with government corruption has also grown in recent years. But none of these things have ever led to the systematic targeting of shopping malls, banks and industrial infrastructure that the country saw on this occasion. Some level of orchestration seems likely.

A growing sense of economic desperation ... no doubt helped fuel the melee

Still, a growing sense of economic desperation, combined with anger at government corruption and impunity, no doubt helped fuel the melee. In explaining that desperation, many observers point to the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, which further widened the gap between rich and poor in a country that was already among the world’s most unequal before the pandemic. Joblessness rose along with food prices. Unemployment among youth aged 15-24 has reached 63 per cent. Hunger is widespread in sprawling townships where many of the poorest live – some in corrugated iron shacks abutting fast-food chains or local malls – despite a government pandemic relief program making cash payments to those most in need.

Even before the pandemic hit, South Africa’s economy was just beginning to recover from the organised theft of public resources during Zuma’s presidency (2009-2018), which drained some $34 billion from state coffers, according to government estimates. Under Zuma, senior politicians awarded inflated public contracts to corporate allies and bloated the government’s payroll, resulting in the near-collapse of several state companies, including the national electricity provider. The grabbing of state assets weakened public services and led to chronic power outages, which in turn undermined the ANC’s popularity.

At the same time, patronage networks and political interference crippled the security sector, notably the police and secret service, compromising the state’s ability to uphold the rule of law and prevent crime. Infighting at the Crime Intelligence Division, for example, meant that five different chiefs headed the agency in the space of a decade, including a Zuma appointee who in 2020 was found guilty of kidnapping and assault and still faces graft charges linked to his tenure. While the State Capture Commission has helped reveal the reach of the corrupt networks that flourished during Zuma’s rule, few of those responsible for the plunder have been convicted. Perceptions that politicians can use their prerogatives to enrich themselves with impunity are therefore widespread.

What can be done to prevent a repeat?

The recent unrest has deepened many South Africans’ bitter disappointment with the governing ANC. Some observers say authorities are overplaying the narrative that the violence was an orchestrated campaign by Zuma loyalists to destabilise the state, and their real motive is to dodge responsibility for the ANC’s failure to reduce sky-high inequality and chronic unemployment. Civil society groups are seizing the moment to reiterate calls for economic reforms, from a wealth tax to a basic income grant, though South Africa already has one of the most expansive welfare systems of any middle-income country on the continent. The basic income grant for which they are pushing would go to everyone aged between 18 and 59 who does not have a job. On 18 July, Ramaphosa said his government would look into this idea as part of efforts to address structural inequalities in the economy. While the energetic pursuit of economic, security and governance reforms may not be a perfect guarantee against a repeat event, it could create a buffer against escalation of the sort seen in mid-July.

Against this backdrop, Ramaphosa’s first priority should be to calm tempers and reassure the country – including the thousands of people who lost livelihoods during the unrest – that he will take steps to address the country’s economic woes. He should make clear that his government is determined to push ahead with a program of deep reforms that he has repeatedly said are needed to re-energise South Africa’s economy, including attracting foreign investment and restructuring the highly indebted national power utility.

Secondly, the government could consider loosening the strings on its social welfare budget, which as an austerity measure is now slated to be subject to below-inflation increases over the next three years. An emphasis on austerity could send the wrong signal to a large proportion of the population that has limited prospects of finding employment and backfire on a ruling party that has pledged to provide a “better life for all”.

Thirdly, an immediate priority for Ramaphosa should be to bolster public confidence in the rule of law and shore up key institutions. Authorities should make the findings of the investigation it has launched into the alleged instigators of the violence public. Ramaphosa should also resist calls to pardon Zuma for failing to appear before the State Capture Commission. Of particular importance for Ramaphosa will be to show that he is in control of his own administration, potentially through cabinet changes, and to demonstrate his willingness to appoint ministers and other senior officials for their proven competence rather than their political loyalties.

The national government must step up efforts to strengthen local leadership

Fourthly, the national government must step up efforts to strengthen local leadership and improve municipal service provision, including by holding local governments to account. Many towns operate without proper central oversight, leaving millions of impoverished South Africans deprived of electricity, drinking water and other basic needs, and aggravating a sense of injustice that could feed more violent protests in the future. The long-term socio-economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hurt the poor the most, is likely to worsen existing inequalities even further.

Finally, given the widespread public frustration with years of impunity, and the police’s inability to prevent the disturbances from spiralling out of control, South Africa will also have to take decisive steps to address the politicisation of its grossly dysfunctional security sector, starting with the Crime Intelligence Division. The country has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Many citizens have grown numb to the daily reports of deaths due to everything from domestic violence to organised crime. While progress on police reform might by itself be insufficient to immediately restore trust in the government, it could be a key step toward preventing renewed and potentially destabilising unrest.

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