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Violence Casts Shadow Over South Africa’s Post-Apartheid Democratic Gains

Alex residents queued for hours to buy basic foodstuff after shops were looted. The unrest has caused a humanitarian crisis, as has not been seen since the dawn of democracy in South Africa. Credit: Dan Ingham

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA, Jul 23 2021 (IPS) - Twenty-seven years after South Africa’s first democratic elections, the country finds itself reflecting on the catalysts of a week of looting and destruction of property resulting in more than 200 deaths and US$ 1.3 billion in damage.

President Cyril Ramaphosa described the week-long riots earlier this month as a failed insurrection.

Immediately before the violence, former President Jacob Zuma had handed himself over to prison authorities to begin serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court for refusing to appear before the State Capture Commission. The commission is investigating widespread corruption in the country.

While there is an apparent link between the jailing of the former president and the looting – most analysts agree that several factors led to what has been described as a perfect storm. Of these many explanations, analysts have highlighted this is a country left ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic, which contributed to an increase in unemployment, endemic poverty that has persisted since 1994, the ruling African National Congress’ (ANC) inability to unite its factions and entrenched racial and ethnic divides.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has planned hearings on the matter. It says it considers the “events which led up to violent incidents in different provinces, along with the resultant consequences, are complex and multifaceted.”

The SAHRC also stated that it had noted tensions that have erupted within and between particular communities – from Phoenix in Durban, KwaZulu Natal, where communities took up arms against looters, to Alexandra, popularly known as Alex, in Johannesburg, Gauteng.

Alex is an area where tensions and dissatisfaction go back for many years. The area, which has been inhabited since before the infamous 1913 Land Act, which removed land ownership from all black people in the country, was a major site of resistance during apartheid. Its post-apartheid history has been one of many unfulfilled promises, botched service delivery and allegedly corrupt practices in the Alexandra Renewal Project.

Writing for GroundUp, Masego Mafata says activists in Alex say nothing has changed after a protest in the area in 2019.

“As Alexandra is seized by mass looting and protests this week, a report from the Public Protector and the SAHRC following the devastating 2019 protests has revealed persistent failures by the City of Johannesburg and the Gauteng Provincial government. While the recent protests are reportedly linked to the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, the joint report suggests that Alexandra’s community is a tinderbox for public unrest.”

Economic hardships and income inequalities, exacerbated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, are seen as a leading cause of dissatisfaction around the country.

In the recently published International Journal for Equity in HealthChijioke O Nwosu and Adeola Oyenubi say, “nationwide lockdowns have resulted in income loss for individuals and firms, with vulnerable populations (low earners, those in informal and precarious employment, etc.) more likely to be adversely affected.”

The Congress of South African Trade Unions’ spokesperson Sizwe Pamla also pointed to multiple reasons for the rioting and looting.

“While the current events were triggered by political restlessness and frustration following the arrest of Former President Jacob Zuma, it is clear now that criminal elements have opportunistically hijacked this issue and are using it to loot,” says Pamla.

“This is also a reminder that the problem of unemployment and poverty is real in South Africa. COSATU has been arguing for a long-time that unemployment is a ticking time bomb that will explode in the face of policymakers and decision-makers.”

For individuals like Georgio da Silva, the owner of a car repair workshop in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, xenophobia also appears strongly in the mix of contributing factors. He and others in the area have experience in defending themselves and their businesses against xenophobic attacks.

Georgio da Silva, a car repair shop owner, saved his business in an area vulnerable to xenophobic attacks.

Immediately after Zuma reported to Estcourt prison and violent attacks began, Da Silva told IPS he managed to shut down his workshop but had their property damaged. Later he realised that xenophobia was only one of the motivating factors.

It is imperative that the complex mix of factors contributing to this ‘perfect storm’ of anarchy and insurrection be examined to prevent future occurrences – the political tensions within the ruling party also have to be factored in.

The bitter factional battle going on within the ANC resulted in Ramaphosa’s display of weak leadership. Barely having recovered from a week of violence, South Africans were left confused as even members of his cabinet could not agree on the unrest’s cause.

Police Minister Bheki Cele says he did not get intelligence reports regarding the unrest from the State Security Agency’s Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, which she disputes.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula contradicted Ramaphosa by saying the unrest was not part of a failed insurrection. She had since backtracked from this statement.

Political analyst, author, director of research at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection and emeritus professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, Susan Booysen, told IPS the “signature of factionalism in the ANC is printed all over the recent unrest in the country. While not being completely a root cause of the unrest, factionalism can be seen as the basic trigger that, once pulled, set the series of events in motion. Clearly, a faction of the ruling party was prepared to take part in instigating this kind of behaviour as a way of ‘getting its own back’ in the over politicised atmosphere that currently holds sway in the country.”

Professor Steven Friedman, Research Professor at the Faculty of Humanities, Politics Department at the University of Johannesburg says his “reading of the violence is that factional politics was important but not necessarily in the obvious way.”

While the violence was caused in reaction to the jailing of Zuma, which gave it a factional slant, he doubted the ferocity of violence in KZN  if it had simply been about supporting him as head of an ANC faction.

“My view is that people in political and economic networks, which are part of the faction which supports Zuma became convinced that the balance of power had shifted and that their networks were now in danger of being closed down. This would have ended their political and economic influence, and so they reacted by triggering the violence to protect their networks,” Friedman says.

What needs doing in the wake of this catastrophe is that South Africa deals with the glaring issues that have made this situation possible. These include appalling economic inequalities and a society racked with endemic violence that is the legacy of apartheid and colonialism. The country has democratic foundations, including a widely-lauded Constitution necessary to build a better society.

South Africans do have the capacity to face these challenges and build a country that delivers on its full potential as a thriving nation where there are equal opportunities for all.

–        Kevin Humphrey was an activist during the anti-apartheid struggle and is a freelance writer and editor.


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  • Red Robbo

    ‘The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has planned hearings on the matter. It says it considers the “events which led up to violent incidents in different provinces, along with the resultant consequences, are complex and multifaceted.”’

    Given the lack of progress in bringing Mbeki , who is responsible for the premature deaths of up to 365,000 AIDS victims, to justice, or, similarly, King Zuma, who shares responsibility for the Marikana massacre with Ramaphosa, what use is the SAHRC?

    ‘South Africans do have the capacity to face these challenges and build a country that delivers on its full potential as a thriving nation where there are equal opportunities for all.’

    Pure hubris, alas: South Africa today is the most unequal society in the world – economic apartheid persists for millions. ‘…The poor have no country, in all lands, they suffer from the same evils, and they, therefore, realise that the barriers put up by the powers that be the more thoroughly to enslave the people must fall’ (International Working Men’s Association, 1866).

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