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Failed South African insurrection televised and tweeted

24th Sep 2021

Mahomed Faizal

Two months after the images of deadly looting in South Africa flashed across television screens around the world, the human, economic and political costs of the violence are still reverberating in the two most affected provinces of Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal (KZN).

With over 300 people dead, an estimated loss of £2.5b, 800 shops ransacked and 100 malls damaged, this has been the worst unrest since the dawn of democracy in the country in 1994.

The arrest and imprisonment of former South African President Jacob Zuma sparked the violence and looting. On June 29, the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, sentenced Zuma to a 15-month prison term for contempt-of-court charges.

Zuma was found guilty of violating its order to testify before a judicial panel, the State Capture Inquiry, which is probing corruption and bribery during his tenure as President.

The violence and looting ended when South African National Defence Force troops were deployed onto the streets. Police, security and state intelligence agencies were conspicuously absent in the first 48 hours of the carnage, pointing to discord and divisions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) and possible collusion of party members in the violence.

KZN, which was especially hard hit, has long been seen as a strong support base for Zuma.

On July 8, when Zuma started serving his prison sentence, his supporters in KZN set up roadblocks on major highways, burning about 20 trucks. The protests closed the highways which link the Indian Ocean ports of Durban and Richard’s Bay to the industrial hub of Johannesburg and Cape Town.

The unrest spread within KZN where shopping malls and retails centres were looted of food, electronics, clothes and liquor. Similar mob ransacking spread to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the nation’s capital. In Durban and Pietermaritzburg, mobs ransacked warehouses belonging to major retailers and factories for over 3 days. Several warehouses were set alight and completely gutted.

Many of these businesses belonged to Indian South Africans and Muslims, who are the biggest minority in the province.

What became clear is that the looting and unrest were orchestrated and incited through numerous posts on social media platforms, including messages on WhatsApp and Twitter.

Addressing the nation after the looting and violence, President Cyril Ramaphosa said, “It is clear now that the events of the last week were nothing but a deliberate, well-planned and coordinated attack on our democracy. The constitutional order of our country is under threat.”

Ramaphosa accused the instigators of treasonous behaviour: “The current instability and ongoing incitement to violence constitutes a direct contravention of the Constitution and the rule of law. These actions are intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge – the democratic state.”

“Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection. Through social media, through fake news and misinformation, they have sought to inflame racial tensions and violence”, Ramaphosa added.

He explicitly accused those behind the looting and violence of manipulating and exploiting the poor and vulnerable, but despite that, “the widespread destruction, this attempted insurrection has failed to gain popular support.”

“It has failed to gain popular support among our people. South Africans have rejected it. It has failed because of the efforts of our security forces, and it has failed because South Africans have rejected it and have stood up in defence of our hard-won democracy”, he said.

Mary de Haas, a Durban-based violence monitor, said there was a combination of issues behind the protests and that it was clear there was deliberate destabilisation by Zuma supporters.

De Haas told a local newspaper that “there is a lot of discontent about service delivery that was happening before this week’s events. The Zuma supporters who want to cause trouble are capitalising on the poverty and hunger blaming President Ramaphosa for not giving them an extension in unemployment grants, that’s how desperate people are.”

While the political spark was lit by Zuma supporters, the mass poverty, unemployment and hunger have blighted the country since the dawn of democracy in 1994.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world where 20% of the richest people control almost 70% of the country’s assets and resources. In the last year and a half, this inequality has only widened because of the COVID-19 pandemic and increasingly more South Africans are hovering below the poverty line.

The 2020 United Nations Human Development Report reports that one in five South Africans lives on less than £1.5 a day, with this inequality expected to worsen as the pandemic bites even deeper.

Unemployment figures rose by a further 2 million last year as a result of the pandemic, and joblessness is only expected to intensify. According to South African Government statistics, current unemployment levels stand at 32%, and it is above 64% for those under the age of 35. More than half of the country’s 60 million people live in poverty, and more than 20% have very limited access to food.

While some businesses may take years to be rebuild, the immediate political aftermath will be felt at the upcoming municipal elections in November and general and provincial elections in 2024.

On the one hand, voters could blame the incumbent Ramaphosa for the riots, given the factional battles within the ANC.

The faction grouped around Zuma regard themselves as Radical Economic Transformation agents fighting against White Monopoly Capital as exemplified by Ramaphosa and his big White business allies. Voters and ANC supporters could very well decide that the President had been indecisive in charting a clear way forward for the ANC after his victory at the ANC conference in 2017.

On the other hand, the electorate could view the July looting and violence as evidence of the serious factional attack on Ramaphosa and credit him for beating back the attempted insurrection and possibly taking back the country on the road to recovery.

According to former ANC MP, Ismail Vadi, the factional battles within the ANC will have a massive impact on the future of the party and for politics in the country.

“There is no secret anymore – the factional fight in the ANC has been taken to the streets. The great consolation is that ordinary people came out in defence of their democracy. At great risk to their safety, they helped to thwart the attempted insurrection”, Vadi said.

“The political and economic ramifications of the attempted insurrection will be felt for many years to come. In the short-term, it certainly will impact negatively on ANC electoral support in the coming local government elections this year, particularly among Indian South Africans and Muslims in KwaZulu-Natal province. South Africa will never be the same”, Vadi added

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