Considerations for South Africa in the wake of unrest

August 2, 2021



On Wednesday 07 July, Jacob Zuma handed himself over to police. The following Friday, his appeal against prison on grounds of poor health was rejected, and violent protests broke out across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, particularly in parts of Durban and Johannesburg. The violence rapidly developed into deliberate property damage, arson and looting of shops, particularly in public shopping centres; but it also included the blocking of major roads, the attacking of infrastructure, and the destruction of vaccination centres. Lasting for a week, it was described as the worst violence since the apartheid regime. Calm was eventually restored with the deployment of up to 25,000 soldiers. At least 40,000 businesses were looted or vandalised, 1400 ATMs destroyed, hundreds of people made homeless due to fires in informal settlements, at least 337 people were reported killed, and more than 2,550 arrested. The economic impact of disruption to the country’s main port and the economic hub is thought to be devastating.






The causes and forces behind this period of unrest are still the subject of debate (in the media), investigations (by the intelligence services), and soul-searching (within the ANC). What is clear is that the violence was initially sparked by the trial of Jacob Zuma, the former president and a colossal figure in the ANC, whose popularity with grassroots supporters of the party has made him a divisive character within the ANC and across national politics. A canny politician, with experience from Mandela’s first government, he makes political capital out of his background as the country’s first Zulu president (he uses his clan name, Msholozi), guaranteeing him their tribal vote in presidential elections. (This ethnic support base is the reason that rioting was concentrated in the Zulu heartlands of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng).


The ANC is no longer the single-issue liberation party that it appeared to be to the outside world in the 1990s. Having been in power for 27 years, and without an effective opposition to contain it, it now suffers from corruption and factionalism, degrading South Africa’s democratic legitimacy in a manner akin to other, less established African democracies. Zuma and his immediate family are at the centre of a faction within the ANC, supported by poor black South Africans and those with Zulu heritage, while President Ramaphosa is supported by those, invariably middle-class black families, who resent Zuma’s decade in power during which he effectively sold out the state to the likes of the Gupta family, for the sake of his own personal fortune. This political divide has resulted in the stagnation of political reforms designed to bring about better wealth equality.


It is now generally understood that the recent unrest, although on the surface a genuine expression of frustration at widespread poverty and inequality, was prompted and prolonged by Zuma’s faction in order to undermine state security, the economy, and subsequently the stability of Ramaphosa’s regime, in part to prevent his ability to push ahead with his anti-corruption agenda. This explains the president’s description of the event as an “insurrection”. Certainly, it is hard to justify the widespread theft of sofas, televisions and fridges, along with the torching of more than 30 schools as anything born purely out of economic desperation or straightforward political support for Zuma. The leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, has openly accused Zuma’s children Duduzile and Duduzane of actively inciting the violence. Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, for instance, shared pictures on social media in which she appeared openly to support the burning of cars and property, and in which she issued messages of encouragement to her 121,000 Twitter followers, with traditional ANC slogans such as “Flames of freedom! Power!”, or more direct calls for public disobedience such as “Shut down KZN – 09 July 2021 – Roads, Factories, Shops, Government”. Social media content of this type, generated by Zuma’s closest allies and circulated in the echo chambers of identity politics and personality cults, has certainly been central to the instigation and the encouragement of the unrest.


It is likely that there was a level of planning at some stages of the unrest. The blocking of the N2 and N3, the highways connecting Johannesburg with Durban, was one of the first developments, and the one with the most impact: this is the main seaport for imports and exports, and any blockade of this port can only be designed to inflict damage on the national economy. However, there does not yet appear to have been a clear movement to remove Ramaphosa from office, and with Zuma unlikely to escape a prison sentence, it would probably not help his case or his supporters. Instead, there has been widespread damage to the economy, to infrastructure, to the population’s (already worrying) unemployment prospects, not to mention the (already sluggish) COVID-19 vaccination programme. If the intention of the unrest was to make Ramaphosa’s job harder, and expose failings further down the line, that may prove to be successful, but it will also make government difficult for any party or faction that comes to power over the next few years. Economists have quoted the cost to the country as being in the region of USD3.5 billion, with the additional problem of job losses as a result of destroyed businesses. So it is hard to see how any politician could hope to emerge from this with a restored or refreshed reputation, unless their only ambition is naked personal gain.


However, regardless of the spark that ignited the violence, and the incitement that prolonged it, this unrest ultimately has its roots in socio-economic frustrations. Some commentators have said that it is a long time in the making, as the last ten years have seen a deterioration in the national economic environment, with more families going without basic provisions, and a steady growth in unemployment to above 30%. Despite Ramaphosa’s promise to turn around the chaos of Zuma’s rule by reviving the economy, it went into recession in 2019 and 2020, suffering further during the pandemic, and he has been criticised for an overly-cautious approach to reform. This has resulted in millions of people facing both damaged social prospects and long-term poverty.






International commentators are always tempted to view violence in South Africa through the lens of racial division, perhaps understandably given the country’s troubled history. However, in this case it seems to be a simplistic assessment of the situation. Although the looters mostly came from black communities, that is more a reflection of the fact that the black communities are the ones suffering from wealth inequality, and who record the highest rates of unemployment, rather than straightforward racism. Although white communities will have suffered just as much by the destruction of businesses and infrastructure, there does not appear to have been any deliberate targeting of white communities in the course of the violence.


Nonetheless, some of the violence was framed as a race issue. In Phoenix, a Durban neighbourhood with a majority Indian population, more than 20 black people were killed during the unrest, described on social media as a “massacre”. This struck a chord nationwide – police detectives were quickly sent to conduct murder investigations in the area, and killers are already being processed in the courts. But perhaps it was inevitable that violence in Phoenix would be seen as a race issue – the vast majority of those looting were from the poor black majority, while white and Indian neighbourhoods established local armed vigilante groups to protect their communities. It is no surprise that people were killed in the tense heavily-armed environment, and it is inevitable that this would be interpreted through the politics of race. White and Indian looters would doubtless have faced the same hazard – they just weren’t doing the looting. And this is the fundamental tension in South Africa – the demographics are reinforced by the economics. The incident in Phoenix just goes to highlight the problem of having residential communities so markedly separated by race, a dynamic that the security environment stratifies along racial lines.






The deployment of the South African National Defence Force appears to have been as successful as possible. Once the show of military force was executed (including armoured vehicles onto the streets of Durban), the unrest began to abate. The SANDF’s comparatively swift response and political neutrality should be reassuring. However, of greater concern will be the behaviour of the South Africa Police Service, which proved unable to stop looters, blundered carelessly with its investigations and arrests, and may even have been complicit in some of the looting in some areas, suggesting a dangerous absence of leadership, professionalism and unity across the force.


Failures by the SAPS contributed to an extension of the unrest, as the security gap was filled by urban taxi associations (armed and influential drivers unions) and communities who assembled vigilante groups to man barricades around residential areas. Such is the ubiquity of firearms that these groups were put together quickly, without sanction from the state, effectively taking the law into their own hands. Whilst they may have protected their immediate neighbourhoods in the short term, they have only served to sustain racial divisions and prolong the violence, with incidents such as the deaths in Phoenix putting them very much in the spotlight.






The unrest became a good opportunity for groups to spread their own propaganda and exploit divisions, particularly racial ones. For instance, during the week three photos were shared on social media of white people looting stores, and the mainstream media was accused of bias for not reporting the involvement of white looters. After an investigation by the online investigative journalist organisation AfricaCheck, it was quickly shown that one photo was from the United States, another was from Mexico, and the other was of South African locals actually protecting a shop in KZN after it had been looted. The objective was to increase racial tensions and presumably prolong the violence.


At the same time, messages were spread on social media by white communities to highlight that they and their neighbourhoods were the ultimate targets of the strategic planners of the unrest, for which there is no evidence. The use of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan and references to that particular movement by black communities were just a further attempt to create a specific racial issue out of one that was originally purely economic and political.


Rumours were also spread on social media over the declaration of a state of emergency. Questions were raised as to why this was not done, and a rumour quickly spread that such a declaration would, according to the constitution, take executive power away from the president and into the hands of the co-operative governance minister, who currently happens to be a member of Jacob Zuma’s family. In reality, the state of emergency would increase the president’s power, but the rumour was used as an opportunity to highlight divisions between ANC factions, and to sustain interest in the political issue.






Of greatest concern to everybody with a stake in South Africa will be the impact that these developments will have when political tensions increase once again. Once the unrest had abated, social media began spreading warnings of (and incitements to) more rioting in Durban and Cape Town, in attempts to exploit the anger and fear that have grown in the recent weeks.


Zuma’s corruption trial has been rescheduled for Pietermaritzburg on 10-13 August. It is now hard to imagine that this will go ahead peacefully, particularly as food prices have spiked in response to the violence, giving the poor communities more incentive to protest.


Next time, the government is certainly more likely to deploy the military more swiftly than before, and a state of emergency may yet be declared. However, the presence of SAPS is no longer going to be a force for stability, if it ever was. The precedent for vigilante groups has now been set, and they will be assembled once again. Taxi associations have demonstrated that they are willing and capable to be mobilised to defend shopping centres, and the state will be unable to stop them. It is hard to imagine that there will be no injuries or deaths as a result of these groups, and this will become a topic of major political debate once some level of stability returns – can an untrained non-state militia be allowed to take responsibility for security when there is no alternative?


Politically, the ANC no longer has authority as the party of peace and unity, and the factions are likely to divide into separate parties in the long term. Ramaphosa could now justify a purge of the Zuma supporters, who could take advantage of their support in KZN by establishing their own movement. This may ultimately lead to greater political stability if it encourages voter turnout and prevents a single party with no effective opposition taking absolute control. It should also promote the need for the resumption of Ramaphosa’s anti-corruption movement and renewed answerability to parliament. On the other hand, future governments may think twice before putting major political figures on trial, if the price to be paid is economic devastation.


The final issue to consider is the progress of the pandemic. Experiencing its third wave, South Africa is by far the worst affected country in Africa (by reported cases, at least), and the recent unrest made any consideration of COVID restrictions very much a secondary issue. A new spike in infections is very likely, and given that vaccination centres were targeted for destruction, and vaccine doses were destroyed, the vaccination programme will suffer. This will prolong the outbreak in South Africa beyond that in Europe and North America, and will slow any hopes for an economic recovery.






Author:                     Jamie Thomson, Senior Risk Analyst, NORTHCOTT GLOBAL SOLUTIONS




Northcott Global Solutions provides risk assessments, tracking, security escorts, personal protective equipment, remote medical assistance and emergency evacuation.



(Cover image: a burnt-out vehicle following rioting in the industrial area of Durban, 15 July. Shutterstock)



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