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South Africa's deadly unrest reveals state failures

Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker
July 14, 2021

South Africa has been rocked by the worst violence in years, triggered by the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma. The reasons behind the looting and rioting, however, go much deeper, says Claus Stäcker.

People burning tires
South Africa's spasm of unrest has dealt a major blow to businesses and shopsImage: Rogan Ward/REUTERS

It doesn't take much to trigger a political volcanic eruption in South Africa. The country has a long history of violence: political violence, racist violence, violence instrumentalized to stoke ethnic conflict, social violence, criminal violence. The boundaries have always been fluid.

For years, the country has seen so-called "service delivery protests" flare up time and again, with anger over poor services and corrupt public servants boiling over into street battles and indiscriminate violence in communities. Sometimes, rumors and inflammatory speeches are all it takes to mobilize armed mobs against immigrants.

This time, the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma was the trigger.

A dysfunctional state

Zuma's former special operations intelligence chief, Thulani Dlomo, is allegedly the mastermind behind the current unrest that began in Zuma's home province of KwaZulu-Natal. Like the head of a royal guard, Dlomo commands a Zulu private army. Zuma has brought ethnicity back into politics.

Jacob Zuma
Zuma repeatedly defied a court order to appear in a corruption inquiryImage: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP Photo/picture alliance

Flanked by his bodyguards — police officers were nowhere to be seen — and cheered by scores of supporters who gathered outside his palatial taxpayer-funded mansion in Nkandla days before his imprisonment, Zuma defied orders to appear in a corruption inquiry. Many see the mansion as a monument to corruption.

When Zuma did finally turn himself in to the authorities, you could watch live online how the anarchy unfolded and spilled over from his political heartland of KwaZulu-Natal to the province of Gauteng with its metropolitan areas of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

And yet, the unrest has little to do with Zuma, but rather with the system he established. Under him, the state has become dysfunctional. The secret services, police and law enforcement agencies have all been infiltrated by loyal supporters. The ruling ANC party is politically and ethnically divided, paralyzed and apparently no longer capable of being reformed.

Unrest jeopardizes vaccination campaign

President Cyril Ramaphosa has tried to clean up and tasked some special forces and investigative agencies to do the work that they were created for. Until recently, no one would have believed that Zuma would be behind bars and that some of his closest allies would be under investigation by the justice system.

Claus Stäcker
Claus Stäcker says the South African state has to failed to deliver

And yet, the deadly unrest of recent days shows that the state continues to malfunction. In addition to the more than 70 deaths in the current spiral of violence, there are nearly 700 deaths and 12,000 new infections from COVID-19 on a daily basis.

The security forces are barely able to enforce the imposed lockdown measures. Looting and arson are jeopardizing the vaccination campaign and blocking concerted aid deliveries. The welfare state has been permanently corroded, with important state enterprises devastated by corruption and mismanagement. And after 16 months of the pandemic, South Africa's economy has been crippled.

To make matters worse, supermarkets, pharmacies and businesses have been plundered and thousands of small business owners deprived of their livelihood. Even the informal sector, unregistered small traders and mini service providers, that in better times fed nearly half of South Africans, are collapsing. What is being unleashed is criminal, rage-filled violence, at times orchestrated, but also often sheer misery and discontent.

South Africans help themselves

Ramaphosa is facing a dilemma. The investors he has lavishly wooed will now likely give South Africa a wide berth. Capital flight will accelerate, and the economic miracle will fail to materialize.

One small ray of hope is that the unrest has so far been limited to two of the nine provinces. And hope is once again being provided by South Africans themselves, who are taking the initiative where the state is failing.

In several cities and townships, spontaneous human chains have formed to protect stores. In Pretoria, a cab association has called on its minibus drivers to stand in the way of looters. In Soweto's largest shopping center, Maponya Mall, opened by former President Nelson Mandela himself, concerned residents kept vigil. Meanwhile, the army has also intervened, and security authorities have minced no words.

It is possible that this eruption of violence will pass quickly. But the volcano of social discontent will continue to bubble below the surface.

This article has been translated from German

Staecker Claus Kommentarbild App
Claus Stäcker Head of the Africa services with a keen focus on politics, demography and generational conflict@ClausStaecker
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