South Africa riots: how Jacob Zuma’s arrest was the straw that broke the camel’s back


South Africa has suffered levels of violence in the past week that the current President Ramaphosa and many other citizens have deemed the worst seen since the end of Apartheid in 1994.

With over 200 shopping malls looted, 212 dead and over 2,500 arrested (as of July 16th), many South Africans were forced to lock themselves inside their houses to avoid gunshots, raging fires and stampeding crowds. One woman was even forced to throw her infant daughter from a building into a crowd of strangers after it had been set alight by looters.

The spark that lit this political bonfire was the arrest and imprisonment of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who handed himself into the authorities on July 8th after being convicted for contempt of court when he refused to testify in an inquiry investigating allegations of corruption during his nine years in office.

The violence began in Gauteng and in Zuma’s home province Kwa-Zulu Natal on July 9th, as pro-Zuma loyalists reacted to his arrest and responded to encouragement on social media by blockading major roads and disrupting essential trade routes.

Former intelligence officers and high-ranking members of the governing African National Congress party (ANC), who retain their alliances to the former President, remain under suspicion for the incitement of violence. At the same time, Mr Zuma’s own daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla faced the same allegation after an unverified Twitter account attributed to her name made use of the hashtag ‘#FreeJacobZuma’ alongside images of protests in Durban city.

The riots turned into a product of mass criminal opportunism instead.

What resurfacing images of past protests, whether used in the correct context or not, make clear, however, is that dissatisfaction with the state of South Africa’s socio-political and economic climate under Mr Ramaphosa’s government has been growing for some time. Add a pandemic to the mix and the perfect storm of unemployment (with record-breaking rates of 46.3% among the young), poverty, inequality, disease and political division begins to rear its ugly head.

Pro-Zuma loyalism already had its home within the poorer echelons of South African society, but with many more people facing hardship due to the economically adverse effects of the pandemic, Mr Zuma’s arrest quickly became, according to Mr Ramaphosa, a “smokescreen”, and the riots turned into a product of mass criminal opportunism instead.

Not only were shopping malls targeted, but homes, pharmacies – even blood banks – were also looted and destroyed, leaving many suffering from chronic illnesses without their usual treatment, and leaving hospitals – that had been inundated with trauma patients due to the violence – facing shortages in medication and equipment.

South African citizens are now facing an even worse political, economic and humanitarian crisis than they did before.

The unrest also forced many Covid-19 vaccination sites to close temporarily over safety concerns, leaving a South Africa already in the grip of an unrelenting third wave of infections even more vulnerable to the disease which caused much of the hardship felt by those driven to join in with the looting in the first place.

What rioters saw as a heroic fight for Mr Zuma’s freedom turned out to be self-sabotage of the highest order. Mr Zuma remains in prison, and South African citizens are now facing an even worse political, economic and humanitarian crisis than they did before.

All eyes now turn to President Ramaphosa as he attempts to repair both a tattered economy and public faith in his government, which many citizens believe has failed to protect them.

He himself has now promised a “thorough and critical review” of his government’s response to the violence, along with further pledges to “stabilise the country”, “provide relief and support recovery and rebuilding” and “encourage the active efforts of citizens in defence of lives, livelihoods and democracy.”

Whether he can truly deliver on these promises remains to be seen. Political division, not only among civilians but running rife within the ANC itself, remains deeply entrenched.

If nothing else, the horrors of the past week have certainly united South Africans in their determination to ensure such anarchical levels of violence are never seen again. 

Image: GovernmentZA by Creative Commons

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