Hungry, unemployed, and without hope: How corruption and COVID launched South Africa’s riots

July 14, 2021, 2:11 PM UTC

Days of riots and looting in parts of South Africa have killed dozens of people and seen hundreds of shopping malls ransacked. Food shortages loom, COVID vaccinations have been disrupted, and the refinery that supplies a third of the country’s oil supply has been shut. There have been spasms of unrest in South Africa in the 27 years since its democratic transformation, but nothing remotely on this scale.

The violence of the past five days was triggered by the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court. However, there’s a lot more to it than that, and, while the Johannesburg Stock Exchange has thus far held up well, the South African rand is taking a battering, retailers have lost an estimated $340 million, business groups are urging the government to declare a state of emergency, and no easy solutions are in sight.

Here’s what you need to know.

How bad is it right now?

Really bad. The death toll currently stands at 72, and there have been over 1,200 arrests. The army has been called into the two provinces that have been chiefly affected: Gauteng, which includes the financial hub of Johannesburg and the capital city of Pretoria, and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the east-coast province that includes the port city of Durban. Armed residents are also now backing the police in protecting shops.

Worryingly, key infrastructure has been targeted and is being shuttered. Roads are blockaded, and many trucks have been torched. In KZN, port operator Transnet on Monday declared force majeure and shut down its facilities in Durban and Richards Bay, saying the violence “has now reached proportions beyond the control of the local law enforcement and security services.”

Sapref, the country’s biggest oil refinery, representing a third of South Africa’s fuel supply, has done the same: The Shell/BP joint venture told its clients that civil unrest and supply-route disruption meant it had to think of its staff’s safety. More than a hundred cell towers have been vandalized. Even a water treatment plant, in the KZN city of Pietermaritzburg, was set on fire.

The South African rand has become a shorting target and is down more than 3% against the dollar in the past couple of days. Remarkably, the JSE Top 40 index has held up well, actually rising 1.6% over the past five days, but the big retail chains, who have been forced to close their surviving outlets across KZN and Gauteng, have not been so lucky.

Shares in Massmart, the owner of major chains such as Game and Makro, have fallen by nearly 15%. Other big players, such as Pepkor and Spar, also saw significant dips but have recovered somewhat.

How did Zuma’s jailing trigger this?

Zuma was imprisoned for 15 months (though he may serve only a few of those) a week ago. He was sent down by the Constitutional Court, which usually isn’t in the business of jailing anybody—but Zuma had defied an order by South Africa’s highest court to testify before the Zondo Commission, a special panel set up to probe high-level corruption during his 2009–18 presidency.

That alleged looting spree, which wiped out as much as a third of South African GDP and was by most accounts orchestrated by an Indian family of Zuma associates called the Guptas, is popularly known in the country as “state capture.” The former President still faces 16 charges associated with the corruption itself, so his current incarceration may be just an appetizer.

There remains a strong faction within the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party that still sympathizes with Zuma. His successor, Cyril Ramaphosa, has spent recent years in a power struggle with them, and recently scored a major victory by ousting the pro-Zuma ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, Ramaphosa’s most powerful rival and a man who also faces serious corruption allegations. Meanwhile, Zuma is also still popular with many Zulu, the ethnic group that dominates in KZN; he was South Africa’s first and so far only Zulu President.

Addressing the nation over the weekend, Ramaphosa said, “Some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilization”—a charge that prompted angry pushback from Zulu tribal leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Zulu celebrities alike.

One of Zuma’s estimated 20 children, his daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, has been accused of using Twitter to stir up the riots with statements such as “Let us now organize ourselves and unite to take back our land.” The ANC top brass has said the party will hold her “accountable” for her tweets, and the police are investigating. The Jacob Zuma Foundation has also issued threatening tweets such as, “Peace and stability in South Africa is directly linked to the release of President Zuma with immediate effect.”

Julius Malema, the far-left leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, also found himself suspended from Twitter for 12 hours after he compared the deployment of the South African National Defense Force to declaring war on civilians. Malema is no Zuma ally, though; he was a staunch sidekick when in the ANC, but went on to build his newer, more radical party’s reputation by opposing Zuma and state capture.

Beyond rabble-rousing, there is a growing suspicion that the unrest may have been at least partly organized as a type of sedition against Ramaphosa’s administration. The State Security Agency—South Africa’s answer to the FBI—has been forced to defend itself against accusations that the riots and looting caught it off guard, and it is looking into tip-offs that former senior staffers, who were loyal to Zuma, played a role.

What now?

Magashule, Ramaphosa’s rival, on Tuesday came out to both back the #FreeJacobZuma campaign and oppose the looting and destruction. “No one, I think, was calling for burning of things and all that,” he said in a radio interview. “We don’t appreciate the fact that property is destroyed, because tomorrow you are going to need it.”

That much is true: While stopping the violence and its further spread remains South Africa’s most immediate concern, the fallout is going to hurt everyone, particularly those who already had little left to lose.

South Africa went into the COVID pandemic as the world’s most unequal society. It has had a miserable pandemic, with vastly inadequate vaccine supplies (only 2.5% of the population is fully vaccinated) and limited government capacity to help those made jobless and hungry by repeated lockdowns. The meager COVID grant of $24 a month ended in April, throwing many into extreme hunger.

However the violence of the past several days may have been orchestrated, this is ultimately the root problem. “Most of the people stealing are hungry and unemployed,” Aziza Botha, a resident of the hard-hit Gauteng township of Tsakane, told GroundUp. “This stealing shows some of the effects after government eliminated the grant.”

“People are hungry, unemployed, and without hope. Obviously, this is also an opportunity to score some political points by a few. Unfortunately, what we see today is the economic consequences of a destructive government,” Dawie Roodt, chief economist at financial services giant Efficient Group, told BusinessTech.

The result: thousands of gutted shops that will not reopen soon, if ever, and immediate food shortages that will leave people even hungrier. The destruction of cash machine and bank branches will, the Banking Association South Africa (BASA) warned Wednesday, keep people from collecting social security payments.

“Without a swift return to political and social stability and respect for the rule of law,” BASA said, “South Africa will be unable to recover from the economic ravages wrought by years of poor governance and maladministration and exacerbated by the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Correction: This article was updated on July 14 to correct the amount of South Africa’s COVID support grant.

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