South Africa was plunged into violence earlier this month after former President Jacob Zuma turned himself in for a 15-month jail term for contempt of court for refusing to give evidence at an inquiry into corruption during his nine years in office. He then lost a court bid to overturn his arrest for contempt of court. The presiding judge at Pietermaritzburg High Court dismissed the application on the grounds that his concerns about his health were not supported by evidence.
Following the arrest, the two most populous provinces of South Africa witnessed a tsunami of looting and arson in the midst of a record wave of Covid-19 infections. Durban city in the province of KwaZulu-Natal and the commercial capital, Johannesburg in Gauteng province were badly affected, but the violence spread to some other provinces too. Pretoria, the political capital, only around 45 minutes from Johannesburg in Gauteng province, was shaken by the worst violence in South Africa since the end of Apartheid. Images of shopping malls, factories and warehouses being looted and burnt, filled the TV screens in our homes and videos of these crimes repeatedly found their way into our social media. Given the scale and intensity of violence, the army had to be called in to assist the overwhelmed police and other law enforcement agencies. With less than 3 percent of South Africans fully vaccinated, the violence forced some of the vaccination centres to be closed.
As in the past, much of the destruction was in already poor areas, but the violence and looting was not restricted to these areas alone. Residents in several areas formed vigilante groups to secure their lives and properties. As shops and departmental stores were looted, warehouses emptied of their contents and trucks attacked, residents feared shortages of food and essential commodities, especially in Durban and parts of KwaZulu-Natal.
The government spoke of it being an orchestrated attack, “deliberate, coordinated and well planned”. The arrest of former President Zuma triggered the violence, but analysts are of the opinion that deeper underlying factors lay behind the violence. South Africa is the country most affected by the coronavirus pandemic in Africa. It is in the middle of a third wave of Covid-19 infections which are continuing to cause sickness and death. The government had to impose strict lockdowns to stem the transmission of the virus. These restrictions pushed the economy into its deepest recorded recession last year, leading to increased hunger and poverty. With a contraction of 7 per cent in the economy last year, the country witnessed its sharpest decline in annual GDP since 1946. Recovery has been hard due to the lockdown and restrictions on businesses. The downturn in the economy caused record-high unemployment levels of close to 33 percent in early 2021. A survey reported earlier this year that more than 10 million people, nearly a sixth of the population, had experienced hunger in the preceding seven days.
South Africa has always faced an enormous battle with inequality, as the vast black majority has not seen the commensurate economic upliftment that the end of Apartheid was supposed to bring. The gap between the rich and the poor widened further during the pandemic, as the poor fell further and further behind. Already facing an uphill recovery path following the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the job has been made tougher by the violence as the malls, factories, warehouses and smaller businesses targeted in the riots are major employers, especially for poorer and lower-skilled South Africans. The impact on investor confidence is yet to emerge.
President Ramaphosa brought with him a promise of streamlining the government’s work and a clean up of the government and the ruling African National Congress. Infighting within the party between loyalists of former President Zuma and those in power under the new president has dogged the ANC. The former president has strong links with those who were part of the liberation struggle. As president, his rustic and down to earth persona earned him the affection of the masses despite the allegations of wrongdoing that followed him over the years. There is also an underlying feeling of exclusion amongst the Zulus, the dominant and an assertive tribe, which is poorly represented in the power structure at present. These political undercurrents may have remained manageable in the absence of severe economic distress, which is the outcome of the current pandemic. However, the simmering discontent boiled over with all these factors coming together.
The full cost of this pandemic is yet to emerge. It is, therefore, vital that we remain faithful in following Covid protocols. Governments across the world have been trying to balance the protection of lives and livelihoods. As governments relax lockdown measures and open up economic activities, citizens must support by increasing personal vigilance and efforts to keep the pandemic away. Every effort that we can make to help those less fortunate than ourselves, would help in giving hope to those facing desperate times. The lessons of violence in South Africa are relevant elsewhere too.