South Africa remains gripped by a wave of violence, arson and looting unleashed by supporters of former President Jacob Zuma after he began serving a 15-month prison sentence following his refusal to give testimony to a Constitutional Court investigating massive accusations against him during his administration. It was alleged that almost US$83 billion was drained from the state. 212 persons have died – mostly from stampedes by frenzied looters running with their loot from the more than 200 malls and thousands of shops that were torched during the past week.
The violence and mayhem have been confined to the areas around Durban and Gauteng/Johannesburg, which are dominated by Zuma’s Zulu tribe. While during the long apartheid regime between 1948 and 1994, the white government had classified the populace as “White (9.4%), Coloured (9%), Indians (2.5), and Blacks (76%)”, the last category was comprised of a number of different tribes who spoke distinct languages and practised different cultures. The Zulus have a proud history of having resisted the Boer/Dutch settlers, and even during the African National Congress (ANC) struggle against apartheid, maintained their separate identity and political organisation. The latter was the Inkatha Freedom Party, launched in 1975. While Zuma was a member of the ANC – responsible for Intelligence – the Zulus have rallied around him after the fall of apartheid.
To use a popular phrase from our own political history, the present riots in South Africa triggered by Zuma’s incarceration was the “occasion for the war, and not the cause of the war”. The latter is much more complex, and stems from a wide range of motives ranging from the systemic to the personal. In terms of the former, there is the legacy of apartheid that resulted in South Africa having the most diversified and dynamic economy in Africa, but almost completely in the hands of the White minority.
The African majority, excluded from sharing in the wealth, remained the poorest. While there have been sustained efforts after 1994 to empower them economically and socially, in line with their political clout stemming from their control of the ANC, which has held power continuously, the results have not been to their satisfaction. Ironically, the Whites, who started out obviously with a great advantage, have begun to resent and complain about the affirmative action programmes to benefit Blacks on the ground that they are a fetter on the international competitiveness of the country. The Coloureds and Indians, who have performed comparatively better than the Blacks, have also been the butt of Black resentment.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit South Africa particularly hard, especially after it was discovered that the 1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine was ineffective against an early variant of the virus. The economy has been severely disrupted and obviously hit the poorest – the Blacks – the hardest. These factors have been touted as the systemic factors behind the riots, but while there might be some truth in this, it cannot be the sole cause, since the poverty rates in the non-Zulu Blacks are as high but they have not rioted.
From the beginning, it was noted than not only had the Zuma family foundation praised the violence and disruptions, but that the latter was executed very strategically and was evidently centrally directed. Major roads to the port of Durban had been blocked, and trucks transporting essential goods like food have been blockaded. The result has been a paralysis in economic activity that might just cause the economy to implode if the disorder continues.
The ANC Government of Cyril Ramphosa, who was a bitter rival of Zuma within the ANC, brought out the personal element. He has reluctantly but finally brought out 25,000 troops in an effort to stem the hemorrhaging: the army’s role during apartheid still raises hackles. But the rule of law that undergirds the functioning of a democratic society has already been damaged.
The callousness of Zuma and his associates to fan the ethnic flames might burn down the whole house.