Tensions are elevated and security is expected to be heightened ahead of the countrywide shutdown protest called by the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party on 20 March. The EFF has called the protest to condemn the ongoing electricity supply crisis – locally referred to as loadshedding – and to call for President Cyril Ramaphosa to resign. The EFF has deployed provocative rhetoric in the build-up to the protest, overtly insinuating that businesses that do not comply with the call to suspend operations could be subject to looting. This has raised fears that the protest could trigger unrest similar to what occurred in July 2021 in the wake of former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest for contempt of court.
The EFF made the announcement of its intentions to stage the shutdown protest back on 29 January. Initially, the protest appeared to attract limited support and was viewed as a limited security concern. However, on 3 March, the country’s second largest trade union federation – the South Africa Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) – announced that it would support the event after being asked to do so by the EFF. SAFTU represents an estimated 800 000 workers across multiple sectors. The likelihood of union members supporting the shutdown was further boosted after the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) agreed to grant the protest protected status ‒ this means that workers cannot be dismissed for participating in the action. The exceptions to this are essential workers such as active-duty police officers and healthcare workers.
The EFF has stated that it also intends to organise a demonstration on 20 March but, as yet, has not publicised any details. This is, ostensibly, to prevent authorities from being able to make preparations or deploy police to monitor or disperse any demonstrators. The party has predominantly called on workers to stay home on the day and for businesses to cease operating. In a savvy move, the EFF selected a Monday before a public holiday (21 March is Human Rights Day). As such, there was already expected to be a higher incidence of people taking leave on the day with many schools and businesses electing to close on the Monday regardless. Nevertheless, the EFF will certainly claim these passive numbers as support for its protest.
Outside of SAFTU, the EFF has received little support for its shutdown protest. The majority of other opposition parties have condemned the call for a shutdown; citing the related economic harm and the threat of unrest. In addition, the largest union federation, the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has not endorsed it. In a particularly significant move, the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO), which is the largest taxi operator organisation in the country, has rejected the EFF’s request for support and stated that they will operate as usual. In fact, SANTACO has joined the chorus of opposition to the march, saying that their members cannot afford to incur the disruption to their business.
SANTACO’s opposition to the protest will be a major disappointment to the EFF, as a countrywide shutdown protest is unlikely to be successful as long as the country’s taxi networks continue to operate. Further, the taxi industry is notoriously resistant to any efforts to physically disrupt its business. Any attempts by EFF members to force drivers to join the protest will likely be met with a violent response.
The state – albeit belatedly – has also begun taking steps to mitigate any violence on the day itself. The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) met on 13 March to finalise its mitigation plan. This will include the proactive deployment of additional police officers – including Public Order Policing units across the country. These deployments will be focussed around national key points, major transport arteries, and identified likely protest hotspots. These hotspots are predominantly the central business districts (CBDs) of the major metropoles; notably, Johannesburg, Durban, East London, Gqeberha (Port Elizabeth), Cape Town, and Richards Bay. In addition, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been placed on standby to respond to any major outbreaks of violence.
The areas of most concern are the city centres in Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban. The EFF and SAFTU will most likely be able to mobilise the largest demonstration in Johannesburg. In Cape Town, the EFF is seeking to prove it can cause disruptions and rally support in the Democratic Alliance (DA) opposition run city. The DA-led government in the city has stated that the shutdown protest will have no impact on normal operations. However, it is Durban that is arguably of the most concern. The city is still recovering from the July 2021 unrest and the EFF’s threats of looting have aggravated existing tensions in the city. Durban has always been prone to more violent protests and the instigators and agitators behind the July 2021 unrest largely remain free. The 20 March protest poses an additional opportunity to fuel unrest and destabilise the province. In response, community policing forums and neighbourhood self-defence groups are also on edge and will likely seek to make their presence felt on 20 March and actively prevent any unrest in their respective neighbourhoods. This increases the likelihood of violent clashes during any protest action on the day.
From an operational perspective, some disruptions are expected on the day. Commercial activity will likely be reduced due to a combination of people adhering to the call for a shutdown, those choosing to stay or work from home due to fear of unrest, as well as the fact that the next day is a public holiday. Public demonstrations and isolated incidents of unrest are likely, especially in major urban areas. The EFF’s strategy of withholding the location of demonstrations until the last possible moment increases the likelihood of violent unrest, but also will limit the party’s ability to mobilise any but its most avid supporters. The heightened security measures taken by both the national government, local governments, and private entities should mitigate much of the threatened unrest.
The 20 March protest will, however, be a major test of the EFF’s support and ability to mobilise the public. The party has invested a significant amount of its reputation and political capital. As such, the party needs the shutdown protest to be a success, or at least successful enough for it to claim it as such. But, regardless of the reality, the EFF will declare the protest a success.
However, should the shutdown be largely ignored, it will deal a severe reputational blow to the EFF ahead of the 2024 elections, indicating that the party’s radical rhetoric is failing to connect with a plurality of South Africans. However, if it is widely supported, leading to significant operational disruptions, it will indicate that South Africans’ deep frustration with ongoing governance failures is leading to increased support for more radical politics. This will embolden the EFF towards further provocative and performative politics, fuelling further political tensions in the country.