South Africa: Political Riots and Social Revolt

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In July, South Africa was swept with a week of civil unrest, which left more than 330 people dead, thousands arrested, and businesses burnt to the ground. While the riots were contained within that one week, the unrest is expected to have longer-term effects.

The unrest, triggered by the imprisonment of former President, Jacob Zuma, led to riots and looting, engulfing the two most populous provinces of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Tensions quickly spread around the country, prompting protests on a scale not seen in decades.

The Reaction to Zuma’s sentencing

South Africa’s Constitutional Court charged Zuma for contempt of court following his failure to appear at a constitutionally appointed commission. The country’s top court has been investigating Zuma for allegedly enabling the plunder of state coffers during his presidency.

Zuma founded the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, the Zondo Commission, in 2018. The Commission was set up to investigate allegations of “state capture, corruption, fraud, and other allegations” in the public sector including organs of state.

However, Zuma testified only once in 2019 and has, since, ignored invitations to reappear. He has continuously accused the Zondo Commission of political bias and publicly questioned its integrity. The Commission, in turn, accused Zuma of subverting the rule of law.

On 29 June 2021, the Acting Chief Justice sentenced Zuma to fifteen months in jail. “The Constitutional Court can do nothing but conclude that Mr Zuma is guilty of the crime of contempt of court,” said Judge Sisi Khampepe. The Court ordered Zuma to hand himself over within five days.

After the ruling, Zuma responded with more defiance and refused to turn himself in for days. His refusal apparently emboldened his supporters who soon began to mobilise against his arrest. Zuma eventually handed himself over to the police on July 7.


Violence continued to spread, reflecting growing anger over poverty and inequality in the country. Protests gave way to the mass looting of shops and malls.

Half of South Africa’s population lives below the poverty line and unemployment is at nearly thirty-three per cent. The wealthiest ten per cent of the country own more than half of the national income, while one in five South Africans lives in extreme poverty.

The economic divide has widened following the COVID-19 pandemic. More than two million have lost their jobs during the pandemic. South Africa is currently battling a third wave of COVID-19 and has been under strict lockdown since June 28.

Many argue that the riots and looting are to be blamed on citizens trapped in systemic poverty. “These protests are not even isolated to food but have provided a cover for people who feel excluded economically to just come and take over,” said the director of KwaZulu Natal-based Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice and Dignity Group, Mervyn Abrahams.

Racial Undertones

At the centre of Zuma’s corruption case is an Indian family, the Guptas. Among other charges, Zuma is accused of allowing the family to plunder state resources and wield enormous influence over government policy.

The family immigrated to South Africa in 1993 and has since emerged as one of the wealthiest interest groups in the country. It is alleged that their rise to economic prominence involved political corruption to secure public procurement contracts.

The family has since fled the country. The allegations have triggered a racial backlash with the targetting of the broader Indian community. In Phoenix, an Indian-majority town, there are reports that there have been deliberate “racial profiling and vigilante-style attacks and killings”. In response, residents took up arms and formed patrol groups to protect their neighbourhoods from looters.

The Indian External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, spoke with the South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Dr Naledi Pandor, over the reported attacks on Indians in the country. Dr Pandor has assured his counterpart that the government was doing “utmost to enforce law and order”. President Cyril Ramaphosa dismissed the acts, describing them as “opportunistic acts of criminality” rather than racially motivated attacks. The Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, echoed this by insisting that the primary motive was criminal and warned people against fake news devised to heighten racial tensions in the country.

President Ramaphosa: “We were poorly prepared.”

In the aftermath, President Ramaphosa condemned the violence, stating: “These actions are intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken — or even dislodge — the democratic state using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection among our people”.

The government, however, is under pressure for failing to act on warnings of unrest. Police reportedly stood by while looters attacked businesses.

The Premier of KwaZulu-Natal, Mr Zikalala, who initially advocated for the release of the former President Zuma to appease protesters, is now calling for the prosecution of anyone involved. “It was deliberately started and orchestrated… and had an element of undermining the state – an insurrection,” said Zikalala.

These confused reactions reveal divisions within the ruling political party, the African National Congress (ANC). Twelve suspected key instigators have been taken into custody. The State Security Agency is also conducting internal investigations into whether its former agents and ANC members had orchestrated violence out of loyalty to the former president.

Washington has called for South Africa, its main ally in the continent, to “respect human rights … and bring a peaceful resolution to the ongoing unrest”. President Ramaphosa admitted that the government failed to spot the risk. “As this government, we must acknowledge that we were poorly prepared for an orchestrated campaign of public violence, destruction and sabotage of this nature,” said Ramaphosa.

The unrest drastically abated after the deployment of the South African National Defense Force (SANDF). The government has since increased the number of deployed troops.

While logistics and services have reopened, there is a growing scarcity of resources creating long queues for food, fuel and medicine.

The unrest has left many without an income as businesses struggle to recover. KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the two most affected provinces, together account for half of South Africa’s economic output.

However, as the country reels from the riots and looting, the perilous economic and social situation continues to raise fears of yet more unrest.

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