Riots in South Africa

Dangerous divide in South Africa threatens domestic peace

Print edition : October 08, 2021

A factory burns on the outskirts of Durban, South Africa, on July 14 during rioting sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma. Photo: AP

President Cyril Ramaphosa testifying before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, in Johannesburg on August 12. Photo: AP

Former President Jacob Zuma after appearing before the High Court in Pietermaritzburg on May 26. Photo: REUTERS

At a demonstration by the Economic Freedom Fighters party against the killing of 36 people during riots in KwaZulu-Natal province, in Phoenix on August 5. Photo: AP

South African business magnates Ajay and Atul Gupta with Duduzane Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s son and director of a Gupta company, a file picture. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Riddled by faction feuds and plagued by scandals, the ANC government struggles to deal with the aftermath of the July riots.

Reverberations from the widespread violence witnessed in major South African cities in the second week of July continue to be felt in the country’s politics. Many political commentators and regional experts have predicted that these will profoundly affect the political scene in South Africa in the coming days.

It is clear that the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled the country since the end of the apartheid era in 1994, is now badly fractured. Although President Cyril Ramaphosa continues to have the upper hand, a significant faction in the ANC that remains close to former President Jacob Zuma has now openly raised the banner of revolt.

Ramaphosa’s rise

The two sides have been at each other’s throats ever since Zuma was removed as President in February 2018 after he was accused of corruption and other misdeeds. Ramaphosa was Zuma’s deputy when the latter was serving his second term as President. After taking over as President, Ramaphosa pledged to eradicate the rampant corruption that prevailed during the Zuma years.

An anti-apartheid activist who also made a name for himself as a trade union leader, Ramaphosa was the chief ANC negotiator when the country transitioned from apartheid rule to multiparty democracy. After losing the presidential race in 1997, he quit politics and became a successful businessman. He re-entered active ANC politics 10 years later.

Also read: President Ramaphosa says he won't allow 'anarchy'

Like Ramaphosa, several former ANC leaders also carved out successful business careers for themselves after the end of the apartheid era. The ANC as a party encouraged the concept of “black empowerment” in business. The white business establishment accommodated senior ANC figures on the boards of big South African firms and gave them minor financial stakes. This led to the emergence of a small black elite that comfortably cohabited with the titans of South African industry.

Very soon, the socialist ideology that had guided the ANC was put on the back burner. Ramaphosa was the most successful among the new black entrepreneurs, serving on the board of many top South African companies.

Many of Zuma’s political rivals who are now with Ramaphosa have been accused of corruption. Zuma himself was elected as ANC chief with the support of the left wing of the party. Before he became President, he had promised to institute radical reforms to break the stranglehold of the white elite over the country’s economy. But once in power, he reneged on his commitments and continued with the neoliberal economic policies of the previous two ANC governments under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. The white minority had agreed to cede power only after the ANC promised that it would protect their economic privileges.

Rivalry within ANC

After Zuma lost the ANC leadership in 2017 and was removed as President in 2018, the differences in the ANC have only widened. At the ANC’s electoral conference, Ramaphosa won only by a slender margin, defeating Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife and favoured candidate.

On assuming office, Ramaphosa pledged to restore “good governance” and eradicate corruption. His decision to prosecute Zuma and other ANC politicians and their business cronies on charges of corruption angered many party leaders and large sections of the party cadre, who believed that “double standards” were at play.

Also read: South Africa's ex-President Jacob Zuma lands in jail

Things came to a head after a South African court convicted Zuma in late June 2021 for contempt of court for refusing to be present at his corruption trial. He was sentenced to serve a 15-month jail term in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. In early September the government gave him “medical parole” and allowed him to live at home for the remainder of his jail term. The government’s decision has come in for widespread criticism in the country.

Zuma trial and riots

Zuma’s corruption trial is on, with the next hearing scheduled before the end of the year. Zuma, who has widespread support within his Zulu community and among the more radical sections of the ANC, termed his trial as unjust and compared his incarceration with the long years he spent in the bleak Robben Island prison during the apartheid era, alongside the icons of the freedom struggle such as Nelson Mandela.

Before going to jail, Zuma called on his supporters to stage protests. Using this pretext, mobs went on the rampage, targeting both private and government property. Durban, a KwaZulu-Natal city dominated by businesses belonging to South Africans of Indian origin, was among the worst affected.

The unrest began on July 9, when heavily armed masked men hijacked trucks and used the vehicles to block a road leading to an important toll plaza in Durban.

Also read: Protests turn violent in wake of Zuma jailing

The road leading to the toll gate is crucial to the South African economy as it links the port of Durban, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, to the Gauteng province, where much of the country’s key economic infrastructure is located. Johannesburg is the capital of the province. Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa, is less than 80 kilometres away.

The initial riots encouraged other economically deprived groups in different parts of the country to block roads and go on a looting spree. The mobs were focussed on looting stores that sold food and other basic items of everyday consumption, reflecting the poverty of ordinary South Africans.

KwaZulu-Natal was brought to its knees during the July upheaval, with its entire supply chain disrupted and its infrastructure, including the water supply system, shattered. The mobs also targeted hospitals, mosques, schools and pharmacies. Durban, which has a population of more than 4 million, was forced to temporarily suspend its COVID-19 vaccination drive. The South African police force proved to be incapable of restoring peace and order, and even after the military was called in to patrol the worst-affected areas, rioting continued for more than 12 days.

‘Insurrection’ against economic infrastructure

In an address to the nation during the riots, Ramaphosa described the wanton looting and destruction as an “insurrection” targeting the country’s economic infrastructure. Many South African commentators, however, chose to describe the upheaval as “food riots”. The initial surge of looting and burning was confined to food and provision stores. More than 350 people died during the riots and property worth $3.3 billion was damaged or destroyed. Hundreds of businesses, including entire malls and key parts of government infrastructure, were burnt down.

In KwaZulu-Natal province, which has a population of more than 11 million, affected residents were forced to form vigilante groups to protect their businesses and communities. Many died in clashes between these groups and gangs of looters.

Durban has a history of race riots. In 1949, during the apartheid era, 149 people died in clashes between the black majority and people of Indian descent. The apartheid government was happy at the prospect of disunity between blacks and the Indian community.

Also read: South Africa: Most looted shops still shut

According to reports in the South African media, the protests were triggered by a group within the ANC known as the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction. The prominent personalities identified with this faction are some of Zuma’s sons, a few ANC veterans of the guerilla war, politicians who benefited from Zuma’s patronage network and Zulu nationalists.

Zuma was the first South African President from the Zulu ethnic group. His supporters have been warning for some time that if the government goes ahead and sends their leader to prison, there will be hell to pay.

Populist parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Party led by Julius Malema, a former ANC youth leader, also tacitly supported the violent July protests. Malema, once an acolyte of Zuma, left the ANC to form the EFF.

According to the leaders of the RET and the EFF, the fight now is between those who want to radically transform the economy and those who want to protect the hegemony of white monopoly capital. Parties like the EFF, along with sections of the ANC, are also calling for radical land reforms. White farmers still own most of the fertile land, divided into large plots.

Zuma and the Guptas

Even before he became President, Zuma was embroiled in corruption scandals. He is currently facing trial on charges of getting kickbacks from a French armaments company called Thales for a $2.5 billion defence deal the South African government had signed in the late 1990s. The charges against Zuma were initially dropped before he became President in 2009 but were reinstated in 2018.

As President, his close connections with an Indian business conglomerate run by the Gupta brothers led to accusations of encouraging crony capitalism. Zuma’s son Duduzane was a director in some Gupta-owned enterprises, while his daughter Duduzile and wife Bongi Ngema-Zuma also worked for companies in the Gupta empire.

Many people within the ANC and the opposition have accused the Guptas of trying to influence the government. In South African political parlance, it was described as “state capture” by the Gupta brothers in cahoots with the extended Zuma family.

The Gupta family, originally from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh, was accused of ensuring that politicians close to them were appointed to top posts in the Cabinet, the Central bank and the judiciary when Zuma was running the show. During Zuma’s tenure, many lucrative state contracts went to firms run by the Guptas. That there was corruption during Zuma’s tenure is irrefutable, with some South African economists estimating that the “state capture” had cost the country more than $82 billion.

Also read: South Africa to deploy 25,000 troops amid unrest

In mid-August, Ramaphosa, while appearing before a government commission probing corruption during the Zuma presidency, admitted that there was “widespread graft”. He should know because he had served as the Vice President for more than three years before taking over the top job. Ramaphosa said that he did not resign at the time because he wanted “to resist some of the most egregious and obvious abuses of power”.

In his first appearance before the commission, Ramaphosa also admitted that corruption had taken root within the ANC. For instance, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize resigned in August after being accused of benefiting from a COVID-19-related government contract. The government is separately investigating more than 4,000 coronavirus-related contracts for alleged fraud.

Ramaphosa told the panel that the government had now drawn “a line in the sand” and would be serious in prosecuting cases involving government corruption. He said: “You may say why we did not do so over a period of so many years but it is better late than never.”

Although most members of the Indian community supported the ANC and the anti-apartheid struggle, recent events show that in some parts of the country the scars left behind by the divisive politics of the apartheid regime are yet to heal and that sections of Indians are part of it.

Indians and ANC

In the town of Phoenix, vigilante groups formed by Indians have been held for the killings 36 innocent blacks. Specifically referring to the Phoenix incident, Ramaphosa urged his fellow countrymen to “have a honest conversation not only about our attitudes to one another but also about the material conditions that divide us”.

Ramaphosa also deployed 25,000 special force personnel from the South African National Defence Force to quell the spreading violence and bloodshed. It was the largest deployment of the army since the introduction of multiparty democracy in 1994. Many South African political commentators are of the view that the violent protests were staged to extract concessions from the Central government and weaken it before the local government elections are held later this year.

The opposition within the ANC hopes that the serious unrest will make Ramaphosa a lame-duck President. Both Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, were unceremoniously sent out before their second term ended. Ramaphosa will only be completing his first term next year, and the Zuma faction is unlikely achieve its goal any time soon.

There has been growing public revulsion against the violent events in July as the scale of the devastation wrought by the rampaging protesters and looters became clearer. Even a month after the looting and burning, reconstruction and repair work was still going on to bring the economy back on track.

Also read: South Africa: Change of guard

Ramaphosa said that the country was not only recovering from the destruction caused by the July violence, it was “rebuilding after the devastation of decades of dispossession and exploitation”.

He said that the government’s aim was to transform the country’s economy and lift millions out of poverty and “ensure that the country’s wealth is shared among all the people”. It was a confession of sorts that the ANC’s rule in the past three decades has miserably failed to deliver the goods. Ramaphosa has appointed 10 new Ministers of Defence, Health and Economy. He has abolished the Security Ministry, making the security apparatus directly answerable to the presidency.

The government has vowed to track down those who instigated the July incidents and bring them to justice. Also, paying heed to the long-standing demands from the Left, Ramaphosa plans to introduce a “Basic Income Grant”, through which unemployed South Africans will be given a monthly allowance. There are many critics of this proposal, who say that the beleaguered South African economy can ill afford to give such handouts.

The unemployment rate currently stands at over 34 per cent, among the highest in the world. It is estimated that around 75 per cent of the country’s youth is unemployed. As one economist observed, South Africa is a country ripe for revolution. The July episode may have been just a warning.

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