South Africa police in Johannesburg on July 12. Photo: MGN Online

Mayhem, deadly violence and pillaging that shook South Africa in days of public unrest were deliberate, President Cyril Ramaphosa alleged while visiting affected areas.

“It is quite clear that all these incidents of unrest and looting were instigated,” said Mr. Ramaphosa. “There were people who planned it and coordinated it,” he said on July 16. President Ramaphosa spoke at the Ethikwini Municipality, said Al Jazeera, in a location that includes the port city Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province, the place where initial protests started in the home state of former President Jacob Zuma, who had been arrested and imprisoned.

“We are going after them, we have identified a good number of them, and we will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country,” vowed South Africa’s current president.

The social upheaval resulted in over 100 deaths, injuries, thousands of arrests, and millions of dollars in property and major infrastructure damage. The strife was triggered by the contentious arrest of Mr. Zuma but shifted to an intensified reaction to poverty and suffering in the country, analysts said. They told The Final Call a combination of factors fed the intense violence.


Observers said jailing Mr. Zuma, 79, led to street protests. He was sentenced in late June by the country’s highest court to 15 months for failing to appear before a tribunal in a corruption case going back to his nine-year presidency between 2009 to 2018. He turned himself in July 7 and was jailed for contempt of court. Mr. Zuma had refused to appear, saying the proceeding had been compromised.

Analysts, however, said the looting outbreak reflected inequality, dissatisfaction, and suffering among South Africans and serious problems within the ruling African National Congress.

“This crisis, which becomes the perfect storm of poverty, covid, the failure of the ANC government repeatedly to carry out a redistribution of wealth, including land … and boom, it explodes,” said Bill Fletcher Jr., past president of TransAfrica Forum. He also said there was rising xenophobia in South Africa which became an undertone in the violence.

Though South Africa is the number one economy on the African continent, in 27 years of ANC governance, major social and economic disparities exist, and unemployment is at a record high. 

According to South Africa’s statistics, official unemployment reached 32 percent in the first three months of 2021. The highest numbers of unemployed are youth between the ages of 15 and 34. Almost one in every two young people eligible for work do not have a job. Covid-19 and the Delta variant are also ravaging South Africa, further devastating the economy.

“There are many underlying issues that are never really mentioned by the press,” said Abdul Akbar Muhammad, international representative of the Nation of Islam. “The people are suffering. If you look at who they call looters, most of them are going for food,” Mr. Muhammad observed. “When you see people going for food, either they are hungry or don’t have access.”

Sithembile Mbete, a senior lecturer in political science at the University of Pretoria, told “Democracy Now” there were two kinds of people in the streets. People taking the food and other goods are not necessarily burning down infrastructure, she said.

There is legitimate hunger and people are economically marginalized, “but it seems then the other destruction, the burning, seems to have been done by people with a greater political purpose,” she said.

The crisis around Mr. Zuma involves ongoing discord and infighting within the African National Congress.  

Some believe during the chaos, there were targeted acts by Zuma loyalists to undermine political foe Ramaphosa. Some of the destroyed infrastructure included water reservoirs, electricity substations and community radio stations in Johannesburg.

Business Unity South Africa said critical transport networks were sabotaged. Sapref, which supplies a third of South Africa’s fuel needs, was shuttered, causing shortages. The import and export of goods was halted at Durban’s port. Manufacturing of chlorine for the water system and explosives for the  mining industry were stopped. Key water systems in KwaZulu-Natal were damaged.

Business Unity South Africa called on President Ramaphosa to increase security and gain control as South Africans clashed with police and military forces. The government deployed more 20,000 troops to assist police in quelling the unrest.

Ms. Mbete said government treating unrest as a security problem requiring a heavy military response was short sighted. “I think that a more sustainable solution would be found if the government looked more holistically at all the causes,” she argued. She suggested immediately reinstating government covid payments to South Africans. A social grant, about $24 a month, to the unemployed during the Covid-19 lockdown was ended in March, she said.

The contempt sentence contrasted with Mr. Zuma’s hero status as a freedom fighter against White minority rule. But he is still seen as a man of the people with especially loyal followers in KwaZulu-Natal. Roads were blocked and businesses were torched in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the country’s economic heart. Chaos spread nationwide to seaside Durban and Johannesburg, the nation’s financial center.

Black-owned companies were not spared. A Nigerian car dealer walked through his lot of burnt vehicles and told media that 16 employees—all South African—were now jobless. “I feel like committing suicide,” the man said.

A South African business owner captured on Twitter video asked why?    

“It’s over,” lamented Thandi Johnson, owner of a trashed party supply store. “It’s over,” she said, standing in the store’s ruins. “I’ve got overheads,” the mother of a 14-year-old said. “I owe banks money. How I’m going to pay this money?”

The unrest marks a major crisis for the ANC, which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994. Mr. Ramaphosa dismissed any notion of unrest as a form of political protest. “There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the violence and destruction,” he said July 12. He condemned “opportunistic acts of criminality.”

Amidst the trouble, South Africa is suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and the worst-hit country on the continent. New daily infections reached upwards of 26,000 cases, driven up by the Delta variant, said officials.

Questions also loomed about whether Mr. Zuma at 79-years-old should be jailed at a time when the coronavirus is spreading through prisons.

Days before submitting to incarceration, Mr. Zuma defiantly challenged the state about being jailed under those conditions. “I’m very concerned that South Africa is fast sliding back to apartheid-type rule,” he told a crowd outside his Nkandla home in early July. 

There is an obligation to ensure “our judiciary is not compromised” by sentences that remind “our people of apartheid days,” Mr. Zuma said. “I am facing a long detention without trial. … Sending me to jail during the height of a pandemic, at my age, is the same as sentencing me to death,” he added.

South African chaos has potential repercussions for Africa as well. Instability inside the major continental power could have negative implications because of help South Africa can provide with regional problems, like Mozambique, and continental problems in Ethiopia, and the Sahel.

“What’s happening right now is a very profound disintegration, I’m afraid to say,” said Dr. Gerald Horne of the University of Houston. “It’s bad news what’s happening in South Africa, and it comes on top of other bad news.”