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Civil Unrest in South Africa – What Happened and Why?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

At the beginning of July 2021, South Africa saw what has now been dubbed as the worst display of violence since apartheid by news outlets such as Al Jazeera, NPR and The Guardian. When former South African president, Jacob Zuma, handed himself over to commence his 15-month prison sentence for obstructing the law, chaos ensued. With the former head of state’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng being the main sites of civil unrest. Sadly, this outbreak of violence, expressed through looting and the burning of buildings and businesses, resulted in 337 deaths, as announced by the government on the 22nd of July. In trying to understand the circumstances that led to this period of violence, multiple theories have come up: some blame Zuma’s supporters, others blame opportunistic criminals whilst others believe that the levels of socio-economic inequality gave fire to the flame with Zuma’s arrest being the straw on the camel’s back that led to the implosion of these two provinces (South Africa & The Zuma Factor | Start Here, 2021). As Twitter user @naledimashishi noted, “multiple things are true at once here. There are pro-Zuma loyalists who are looting specifically because they want Zuma out of prison. There are opportunistic criminals. And there are desperate people using this as an opportunity to finally put food on their tables.”

The Zondo Commission

The Zondo Commission is a public enquiry created to hold the parties involved in the “state capture” (corruption and fraud within the government and private sector) of South Africa legally accountable. Judge and Deputy Chief Justice, Raymond Zondo, declared that he would expose corrupt individuals no matter their status or position in society. Zuma refused to appear before the commission in February 2021 and managed to avoid answering for his dirty deeds during his reign as the head of state. This refusal to appear before the commission led to the former president being charged with a jail sentence of 15 months for contempt of court in June 2021, with an order to turn himself in before the 8th of July. Although attempts were made to avoid imprisonment and being held responsible for his actions, the former president still managed to end up in jail. The sentence was not for corruption charges, rather it was a demonstration of how no one is above the law, especially the supreme law of our land – the Constitution. Law Professor, Pierre de Vos wrote the following on his blog Constitutionally Speaking:

“The majority judgment, correctly in my view, depicted Mr. Zuma’s contempt of the Constitutional Court, the judiciary, and the rule of law as posing an existential threat to the authority of the Constitution itself. Acting Chief Justice Khampepe described Mr. Zuma’s behaviour as “outlandish”, a “direct assault, as well as calculated and insidious efforts to corrode [the] legitimacy and authority of” the Constitutional Court, which posed a severe threat to the judicial process.”

Zuma’s supporters

Individuals loyal to Jacob Zuma protested the prison sentence and expressed their opposition to the court order by gathering in Nkandla to show their solidarity with Zuma. This went from the assembling of crowds in KZN, vows to halt work and block roads to looting and the destruction of properties in KZN and Gauteng. Zuma’s children supported these acts and are alleged to have instigated the escalation of violence. At a higher level, President Cyril Ramaphosa has hinted at the belief that individuals in high political positions orchestrated the destruction of major factories, warehouses and ports. 

The main question being asked is, “Was this an insurrection?” The ANC has seen divisions between those who support Zuma and those who support the current President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, with those close to Zuma being implicated in corrupt deals. This means that there is a possibility of people in high places attempting to destabilize South Africa in order to stay out of jail because if the former president of South Africa can be jailed, what stops them from following suit?

most unequal society in the world

In 2019, the World Bank branded South Africa as the most unequal country in the world. 27 years after the transition into a democratic society, we have seen some changes in the political and justice fields but there have been little to no meaningful social or economic reforms. The present government has failed to achieve social justice and this is reflected in the fact that, “the richest 20% of people in South Africa control almost 70% of the resources” and “the average white, male CEO earns the same as 461 Black women in the bottom 10% of earners.”(Mlaba, 2020) South Africa’s history of colonialism and apartheid means that the institutions and systems we see thriving today were founded on racially discriminatory values that have shaped our present society. From the University of Cape Town to De Beers, most present organisations, whether public or private, were created for the elevation of white people and the demise and exclusion of black people. The failure to completely revolutionise society and dismantle oppressive structures has resulted in high levels of poverty, high unemployment rates and white people having more access to basic rights such as quality healthcare and education. 

The civil unrest of July 2021 is a reminder of the underlying issues that exist in South Africa and the incompetencies and frictions that exist within the social, economic and political realms.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate the existing social and economic issues in South Africa, with the intermittent lockdowns contributing to the hardships of the most vulnerable communities in the country. Therefore, it is not a surprise that the opportunity to loot led to many members in our society resorting to stealing basic necessities or making their cries for help heard loud and clear through looting and destruction of resources and infrastructure. The root causes of inequality in South Africa need to be addressed and it is up to the government and the private sector to do this because they have the means to.

The sad reality is that the outbreak of violence will largely affect the livelihoods of the very people that were involved in the low-level looting and destruction, as many jobs have been compromised or lost. Whilst the alleged orchestrators will continue to live comfortably. Additionally, there is the potential of high transmission rates of the COVID-19 virus having taken place during the looting which will put a strain on those that do not have access to basic health care.

The civil unrest of July 2021 is a reminder of the underlying issues that exist in South Africa and the incompetencies and frictions that exist within the social, economic and political realms. The racial tensions in our society were also put on display when some black people were denied entry into their own neighbourhoods and local stores as well as when black people and Indian people turned against each other in Phoenix, KZN. On the other hand, It was heart-warming to see South Africans come together to clean up communities and areas that were destroyed but, as citizens, all we can do is attend to the symptoms of inequality, not the root causes. The government needs to urgently get it together and deal with causes of inequality in all its current manifestations.

Sesetu is a humanities graduate from South Africa. She is interested in writing, reading and learning new languages.