​Police in Johannesburg​ arrest a suggested looter on the 11th of July. Photo: EMMANUEL CROSET/AFP via Getty Images
Police in Johannesburg arrest a suggested looter on the 11th of July. Photo: EMMANUEL CROSET/AFP via Getty Images

How South Africa Erupted

Protests over the arrest of ex-president Jacob Zuma have spiralled into violence motivated by rampant inequality and social divisions, in the worst period of unrest since the end of apartheid.
July 16, 2021, 5:01pm

JOHANNESBURG – For over a week, South Africa has been gripped by the worst levels of deadly violence and looting the country has seen since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Hospital trauma units have experienced an influx of casualties. At least 117 people have died, 11 during a stampede as people attacked a mall, many of which have been looted. Businesses, big and small, have closed shop and sent staff home. Long-haul trucks have been torched. A child was thrown to safety from a burning building, just one of many structures set ablaze that have lit up the evening news bulletins. Losses have been estimated to be in the millions of dollars. The national currency has tumbled against the dollar. A blood bank was looted while the president gave a televised speech addressing the crisis.  COVID vaccination sites have suspended operations. And more than 1,200 arrests have been made.

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A cop walks between burnt-out cars at a showroom in Johannesburg. Photo: LUCA SOLA / AFP via Getty Images

The South African Police Service (SAPS), widely considered incompetent and often given to violence, has been overwhelmed. President Cyril Ramaphosa has deployed the military, the South African Defence Forces (SANDF), to assist beleaguered cops.

The trigger to the unrest was the jailing last week of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. Zuma, who led South Africa for nine years until 2018, was sentenced by the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest court, for failing to appear before a commission of inquiry into allegations of graft during his tenure. Zuma turned himself in just before midnight last Wednesday, minutes before the deadline before which the police would have arrested him. In the end, it was uneventful and the peaceful surrender averted fears of a potentially deadly standoff between police and Zuma supporters who had gathered at his homestead and vowed to resist any attempts to arrest him. 

Smoke rises from a Makro building set on fire overnight in Umhlanga, north of Durban, on the 13th of July. Photo: RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images

Smoke rises from a Makro building set on fire overnight in Umhlanga, north of Durban, on the 13th of July. Photo: RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images

Many thought that would be the end of it  – they were wrong. The violence began last Friday when 33 trucks and vehicles were burned at random in Mooi River, a small town in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal as his supporters demanded his release, arguing that his prosecution was a politically-motivated witch hunt led by Ramaphosa, his one-time deputy now turned political foe. On Saturday, the crisis worsened, spreading to Gauteng province, home to Johannesburg and Pretoria, the country’s economic and administrative capitals. Zuma’s children have incited violence on social media. His daughter, Duduzile, is reported to have tweeted then deleted: “Let it burn.” Zuma’s eponymously named foundation described the chaos as “the reactive righteous anger of the people...which others have characterised as violence.” Zuma and his acolytes have been accused of stoking ethnic tensions, most notably by Ramaphosa. “It is a matter of concern to all South Africans that some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilisation,” he said in address on Sunday.

It is now clear that the internal fissures roiling the ruling African National Congress (ANC) are spilling into public view. Since winning the presidency of the party in December 2017, Ramaphosa has pledged to clean up a party blighted by rampant corruption. His first notable act was to use the party machinery to force Zuma to resign as the nation’s president in February 2018 – Ramaphosa has been South Africa’s president since then. Factions have emerged within the ruling party. ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, the party’s third-most powerful member who is aligned with the Zuma wing, faces 21 charges of fraud relating to contracts awarded during his reign as premier of the Free State province and is currently out on bail. Zuma himself faces a corruption trial alongside French arms manufacturer Thales for dealings from 1999 when he was deputy president; the trial resumes later this month. With prominent leaders of their faction imprisoned or facing serious charges, Zuma’s supporters believe Ramaphosa is using organs of the state to purge the party, the robust independence of South Africa’s judiciary notwithstanding. There are now questions whether the crisis began organically or was orchestrated; police minister Bheki Cele has said 12 unnamed instigators are under investigation. Former spies loyal to Zuma are said to be under investigation, with the former head of a special operations unit reported to be the prime suspect. 

Volunteers from Bara neighbourhood clean the street in front of the looted Jabulani Mall in Soweto. Photo: LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images

Volunteers from Bara neighbourhood clean the street in front of the looted Jabulani Mall in Soweto. Photo: LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images

The aim of possible coordination would be to make the country ungovernable so as to undermine Ramaphosa, Louw Nel, a political analyst at NKC Economics, told VICE World News.

“I think it's a very dangerous and not necessarily well-thought-out plan to undermine the current administration,” Nel said. “We’re only three months away from local elections and a disastrous election would give them ammunition to call for his removal, saying that the ANC has regressed under his leadership and suffered at the polls.” Nel points to the destruction of critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants and more than 100 telecom towers as signs of possible coordination of the origins of the crisis. “The fact that people have taken advantage of the lawlessness shouldn't detract from the fact that there is coordination taking place,” he said.

An aerial view taken on the 15 of July shows rescue personnel working on site after a fire gutted the Springfiled Park, at Mobeni, south of Durban. Photo: STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

An aerial view taken on the 15 of July shows rescue personnel working on site after a fire gutted the Springfiled Park, at Mobeni, south of Durban. Photo: STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

As the protests from pro-Zuma loyalists reached new heights over the weekend, looting, so often a feature of South African protests, spread across the country. Photos and videos showed people making away with food and basic necessities. There were plenty of opportunistic looters, too: a local channel showed a man attempting to fit a stolen TV into the back of his car. 

South Africa’s socio-economic landscape is fertile ground for discontent. It is the world’s most unequal society, according to the World Bank. All the metrics by which inequality is measured make for grim reading in South Africa. Income inequality, the gap between the highest and lowest paid workers, is high. So is wealth inequality. The top 1 percent of the population owns 70.9 percent of the wealth in this country; the bottom 60 percent collectively own only 7 percent of the resources. South Africans living below the national poverty line have been increasing since 2011, according to Statistics South Africa. Government agency records show about 35.1 million – 49.2 percent of the adult population – live on less than $70 a month. South Africa can often feel like two different countries. The comforts of Sandton, a glitzy district of Johannesburg with glass towers and high-end restaurants, are a world away from townships like Alexandra where running water and modern toilets are luxuries. Meanwhile, the pandemic has worsened an already critical state of unemployment: 32.6 percent of South Africans are unemployed; for young people that number rises sharply to 46 percent. Frustrated by a lack of opportunities and optimism, some people have taken to the streets. It is a frustration that president Ramaphosa acknowledged in his Monday night speech. “This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew: that the level of unemployment, poverty and inequality in our society is unsustainable,” he said. “We cannot expect a lasting and durable peace if we do not create jobs and build a more just and equitable society in which all South Africans can participate freely and equally.”

MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

A suspected looter pulls a few items along the ground outside a vandalised mall in Vosloorus, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Photo: MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

The ANC, which has ruled since the advent of democracy in 1994, has been accused of misappropriating state money and awarding government contracts to the most connected business owners It is estimated that $35 billion (£25 billion) was stolen from the state during Zuma’s nine-year rule, a charge he denies. Key institutions like the national airline, railway and tax agencies, the electricity distribution company and so many others were gutted. Impropriety continues to this day: Amid a devastating third wave that has brought record levels of infections, the health minister is currently suspended over allegations of improperly awarded contracts to some of his associates. 

With the state stretched, armed self-appointed neighbourhood watches are taking power into their own hands. Armed minibus drivers, an industry synonymous with violence in South Africa, have begun to defend businesses in some of the affected communities; three people, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed when taxi bosses allegedly opened fire at a mall in Gauteng. There are reports of Black people being racially profiled as potential looters, heightening racial tensions. Prominent voices in society are now calling on Ramaphosa to declare a state of emergency to grant security forces greater latitude to tamp down the riots. So far he has resisted those calls. Instead, Ramaphosa has vowed to restore “calm and order”. While the worst of the violence and looting appears to have subsided for now, there is still a long way to go to repair the physical and social damage that the past week has brought. 

Community members hold weapons as they stand at a road block in Phoenix Township, North Durban on the 15th of July to prevent looters from reaching the community. Photo: GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images

Community members hold weapons as they stand at a road block in Phoenix Township, North Durban on the 15th of July to prevent looters from reaching the community. Photo: GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images