Widespread civil unrest and looting have occurred across South Africa’s Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) provinces in what is potentially the country’s most significant security challenge in over 30 years. The unrest began as a series of protests in KZN on 8 July opposing the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma on charges of contempt of court. Zuma had openly refused to obey a court order by the Constitutional Court to appear before the ongoing Commission of Inquiry into State Capture.
The protests initially started small and were somewhat organised, seeking to blockade key arterial highways in KZN province such as the N3. Protesters targeted freight trucks and suspended traffic on these routes demanding Zuma’s release. However, over the subsequent days, the protests turned violent initially setting fire to trucks before turning to looting shops. This catalysed a marked shift from organised protested to open looting and unrest which by 10 July had already spread from KZN to Gauteng and parts of Mpumalanga. The unrest was initially written off as politically and ethnically motivated and it was believed it could be contained to areas where there was historically strong personal support for Zuma and a significant militant Zulu element, such as northern KZN and the labour hostels in Gauteng’s townships.
However, the unrest rapidly escalated beyond these areas and took on a more socio-economic nature. It is now evident that most of the ongoing looting has little to do with Zuma himself and any concessions regarding the former president will do little to calm the unrest. This is evidenced by the fact that rioters are not targeting the courts, government buildings, or even private sector institutions perceived as anti-Zuma or cited by Zuma himself and his acolytes as their enemy so-called “white monopoly capital”. Rather rioters have targeted malls and street-facing stores predominantly in working-class neighbourhoods and townships in Johannesburg, Durban (eThekwini), and Pietermaritzburg. Notably, liquor stores were among the first targeted after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a two-week extension of the ongoing liquor ban under the coronavirus prevention regulations.
The success of the initial – and subsequent – pillaging of malls displayed a lack of security force presence and response time. This created the perception that looting is currently a low-risk, high-reward endeavour. This has fuelled criminal and desperate elements within communities to continue to target retail outlets and warehouses. This is compounded by the social and emotive pressures associated with such mob activity.
As indicated, although Zuma’s arrest may have been the catalyst to the ongoing unrest it is not the main driver of the phenomenon but more the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Admittedly the ongoing unrest is being actively encouraged by the former president’s allies and Ramaphosa’s enemies who see political advantage in destabilising the country. The State Security Agency (SSA) admitted on 13 July that it believes former members loyal to Zuma are helping to exacerbate the problem.
However, the true causes of the current unrest have deep roots in the prolonged and deepening inequality in South Africa. This economic inequality has amplified existing class and racial tensions in recent years, worsened by widespread corruption and maladministration during the Zuma presidency during which little was done to develop or economically uplift marginalised communities. Instead, the state’s security apparatus was repeatedly deployed to repress manifestations of these tensions such as the repeated service delivery protests, labour strikes, and student demonstrations. These long-standing social and economic challenges have been exacerbated by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. Unemployment rates have increased, and financial and food insecurity has deteriorated. The use of security forces including the military to harshly enforce the lockdown regulations along with the widespread corruption and theft involved in the pandemic response has deepened anger and distrust in the state. This has reduced the social investment many marginal communities have in maintaining the status quo and lowered the threshold for social violence such as the ongoing looting.
The situation is expected to continue for the next few days at least. The fact that the unrest appears to have been confined to KZN and Gauteng is promising. Notably, protests and rioting in Mpumalanga appear to have calmed. The fact that the unrest is confined to the major urban areas of these provinces also gives security forces a better opportunity to quell the violence.
On 12 July, Ramaphosa announced that additional police forces were being called up and around 2 500 infantry members from the South African Defence Force (SANDF) were being deployed. The SANDF will predominantly take over transport duties and the protection of key infrastructure enabling the police to free up additional resources for public order policing. However, some soldiers will be deployed in a support capacity for public order policing. The deployment of soldiers is a concern given that they have been trained in combat and not riot control. This raises the possibility of fatal clashes with looters. Even without the SANDF deployment, at least 50 people have already been killed in the unrest.
There is also the possibility that the additional security resources will be insufficient to contain the unrest. Thus far, security forces have been unable to keep pace with rioters both in terms of numbers and location. If there is a police presence at one mall, the protesters simply target another. This perception that the state’s security apparatus is unable to prevent the unrest will further incentivise opportunistic and criminal elements to spur further pillaging.
Similarly, the lack of faith in the police has led to the formation of citizen groups and community security organisations in Johannesburg, Durban, and Pietermaritzburg. Many of these private groups are armed and are essentially loosely organised militias. This is an unneeded additional security concern and has the potential to escalate violence in these areas. This is particularly concerning as these community groups tend to be of white and Indian ethnicity and any violence could add an inflammatory racial element.
The unrest is expected to be quelled in the coming days with the increased mobilisation of resources from police, the SANDF, and even private security companies coordinating with authorities. However, the damage caused will have far-reaching consequences for the country. The damage to property and businesses is already well into the billions of rands, much of which is uninsured. This will result in business closures and job losses in the affected areas. Similarly, the destruction of malls and retail infrastructure will increase difficulties in accessing food and essentials in these areas. Socially, economic and communal tensions have worsened which will likely lead to increased incidents of intercommunal violence. Also, with trust in the police’s ability to prevent looting shattered, the likelihood of looting occurring during future protests has increased significantly.
Further, the unrest has disrupted the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations in KZN and Gauteng and prevented testing from taking place. Many vaccination sites have been permanently destroyed. This is a major blow to the country’s efforts to contain the pandemic and will likely prevent officials from meeting the desired vaccination targets for the year.
In the immediate term, the situation is expected to continue, with the best-case scenario seeing the unrest contained in the coming days. However, there is a strong possibility that the looting will continue into next week and potentially spread to other provinces. This will result in further violence and fatalities. The situation will be at its most volatile when the Constitutional Court delivers its reserved ruling on Zuma’s request for it to reverse its decision and release him. In the anticipated event that Zuma’s request is denied, protests and looting are once again expected to spike.
In the interim, protest-affected areas are expected to experience food and essential supply shortages in the coming days as shops are closed and deliveries cannot access these areas. Further, disruptions to operations on the N3 highway could lead to delays and supply disruptions in inland provinces that are dependent on KZN ports.
Regardless, the ongoing unrest is a watershed moment for the country and government. The preceding years of sustained social strain and growing inequality have led to repeated warnings that it could lead to unrest. This has largely been left unaddressed as the ruling African National Congress (ANC) was paralysed with internal factional infighting. This created the social conditions for Zuma and his acolytes to destabilise the country’s two most populous provinces in response to his political and legal downfall. As such, the state will need to take significant steps to address the persistent economic insecurity in the country and ensure that marginalised communities are invested in maintaining the status quo and social contract. Failure to do so will inevitably lead to a repeat of the current crisis.