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CWA # 534, 15 August 2021

NIAS Africa Monitor
South Africa: What is behind the pro-Zuma protests?

  Anu Maria Joseph

South Africa has to look beyond the "insurrection" narrative and address the economic and political crisis that triggered the violence.

From 7 July, South Africa witnessed the worst unrest since the end of apartheid. Although calm prevails now, the cities of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng are still under panic. The protest started in early July over the arrest of ex-President Jacob Zuma for defying the constitutional court. He was sentenced to 15 months in jail, as he failed to attend court for the inquiries on the corruption allegations that happened during his presidency. Demanding release, his supporters blocked major roads, burned vehicles, bringing normal life to a grounding halt. 

The following week, the protests evolved into larger riots and mass looting. More than 800 businesses were looted. Buildings and malls were ransacked, factories were set aflame, warehouses were razed, and clinics were vandalized. The violent riots claimed 300 lives, and at least 2,500 were arrested. The protests have had a major impact on the country's economy. However, more than an "insurrection" spurred by pro-Zuma elements, riots reflected poverty, corruption, inequality, unemployment and political insecurity.
Over the past two decades, the South African economy was dragged down by mismanagement, corruption and lack of investments. As per the World Bank report, the unemployed rose from 5.4 million to 9.5 million. Youth unemployment is estimated to be 57 per cent. Even though the country has a technologically advanced and diversified economy, inequalities control wealth distribution and consumption. The World Bank reported 20 per cent of the wealthy White Africans control the 70 per cent resources of the country. It recognized South Africa as an unequal country. Along with income inequality, unequal access to opportunities and essential services prevails. The new policies of trade liberalization and privatization strengthened the rich and disregarded the small enterprises.
The Department of Statistics in South Africa notes that 49.2 per cent of the population above 18 falls below the upper-bound poverty line. According to the Living Conditions Survey (LCS), 52.2 per cent of women fall below the upper-bound poverty line. Besides, the multiple waves of COVID-19 have aggravated the primary issues surrounding poverty in the country. The pandemic severely hit the poor and vulnerable sections of society. Lockdowns have disrupted various sectors of the economy that left the public cramped. The government put little effort into addressing the grassroots issues. The restless and anxious public took the Zuma protests a chance to relive their anger and desperation. Using the pretext of a political grievance, the instigators took advantage of the public desperation to provoke the popular riot.

However, the desperations turned to opportunism when criminal groups and angry youth began wreaking havoc. Social media was used to spread malicious information that further escalated the tensions. Ineffective and little effort by the police ended up in vigilantism. Different communities took the law into their hands and relied on their own methods to control looting and protect business establishments. Trade unions, mafia gangs, taxi associations and community leaders came together to denounce the looting. Besides, racial and ethnic tensions exploded within communities, which accelerated the violence.

The riots were instigated by Zuma supporters who belong to the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the African National Congress (ANC). Jacob Zuma, the anti-apartheid leader, came to power in 2009. But he was removed by his own party in 2018 over the 'state capture' allegations with an Indian family. Zuma was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa. He came to power promising to recover state capacity, fight corruption and appoint capable officials to the country's National Prosecution Authority. The Ramaphosa government adopted a "step-aside" policy on the ANC members who were accused of serious crimes and corruption. However, the majority of the corrupt belong to the RET faction who benefited from Zuma and his regime. 
Zuma's arrest would open the door to future prosecutions. Consequently, the pro-Zuma protests became an attempt by the corrupt faction to protect themselves from prosecution or being removed from public office. There were reports from several municipalities, criminal mafias who have verified ties with political elites inciting riots. A large amount of ammunition was recovered from streets which are confirmed to belong to inciters. 

Placing the blame upon the public's frustrations, the deep-rooted corrupted political network tried to ruin the rule of law and target the impotence of government. Riots are not new to South Africa, but past looting and protests were limited to certain townships. The pro-Zuma protests reached the country's economic hubs and suburbs, threatening lives and property. Though the riots were unexpected, the government failed to act early to control violence and address public grievances. 

Though Zuma's arrest is an achievement of Ramaphosa's administration in terms of ensuring equality before the law, there is a palpable fear that the government's focus on internal issues within ANC would sideline the real issues faced by the public. Economic inequality and political insecurity are the key drivers of South Africa's social instability. Bad policy choices and inconsistent governance inflame economic decline leading to social instability. However, deep-rooted political aspirations and motivation are the fundamental reasons igniting the violence. The victims of the faction competitions and political cupidity are the public. Thus, it could be concluded that the riots were fueled by deep-rooted inequalities, poverty, unemployment, political ambitions and political insecurities that are needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

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