South Africa

What is Driving the Protests, Looting and Riots in South Africa?

Protest, looting, and riots have plunged South Africa into a deep crisis. Scores of people have been killed in this unrest which was sparked by the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma on July 7th.

At time of recording, the government was dispatching 25,000 troops to bring order–and unprecedented military mobilization in the post-apartheid era.

On the line with me from Johannesburg is journalist Geoffrey York, the Africa Bureau Chief for The Globe and Mail. We kick off discussing the circumstances that lead to former president Jacob Zuma being sent to prison, and how and why his jailing sparked protests in key provinces of South Africa. We then discuss what this unrest reveals about inequality, poverty, joblessness and state failure in South Africa.

If you have 20 minutes and want to better understand why South Africa is experiencing this major unrest, have a listen.


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What Sparked the Unrest and Protests  in South Africa?

Geoffrey York [00:02:46] The South African government has set up a state inquiry into corruption. The term they use here is state capture. That means basically when elements of the state, including state-owned enterprises and government ministries and so on, have essentially been captured by corrupt forces. In this case, it was a lot of people, although it was primarily the well-known Gupta Brothers from India who have been doing business in South Africa, became very close to Jacob Zuma, were in business with his son, and became incredibly influential and then incredibly wealthy as a result of this. 

[00:03:30] So this inquiry into corruption was actually recommended a number of years ago by the Public Protector, which is a constitutional watchdog on corruption, and she had called for this inquiry to be held. And this is under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, who was president for nine years until 2018 when he resigned. And under severe pressure, Mr. Zuma eventually agreed to this inquiry and he actually signed the documents to put the inquiry into effect. So the inquiry has been going on for a couple of years and gathering a lot of powerful evidence about corruption in South Africa. And of course, at some point, it needed to talk to the former president himself because he really seemed to be at the heart of so much of the corruption allegations that the inquiry was hearing. And it has been very good about giving everyone a chance to give their side of the story. 

[00:04:34] But it’s not a confrontational thing where it puts people on trial. It actually tries to get to the facts. So it puts people under oath and asks them what’s going on, what happened in those years, and asked them about the various evidence that is that they’ve gathered and investigated. And it gives cabinet ministers, former cabinet ministers, former top officials a chance to reply to that evidence and to give their side of the story. So it’s actually been very fair and very balanced. But when it came time for Mr. Zuma to testify -he did testify at the beginning for a couple of days. But basically, he did not really answer any questions. He simply gave a monologue talking about various conspiracy theories -how he felt like a victim, basically rambling on and on, giving his version of events, but not responding to any specific questions. When it came time for the specific question, he basically refused to testify. He even walked out of the hearings. That was last November. 

[00:05:45] The inquiry then went to the courts -well, first of all, it actually filed a charge of contempt, contempt of court, with the South African authorities. But the South African prosecutors basically just sat on it and did nothing. So after a couple of months, in January, the inquiry went to the South African highest court, the constitutional court, basically the equivalent of the Supreme Court, and asked it to issue an order that Mr. Zuma be legally required to testify. The constitutional court did that. Meanwhile, Mr. Zuma was basically saying, I don’t care what you do. You can put me in jail and you can prosecute me. I don’t care. I’m not testifying. So he did not even actually provide his response o the application to the court. He just ignored it, basically. So at that point, the inquiry had this court order saying he must testify. You still did not testify. He ignored the court order. So then the inquiry went back to the constitutional court and said he must be put in, he must be given a jail sentence because of the seriousness of his refusal to obey the court orders, 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:07:09] Basically like a contempt of court sort of thing? 

Geoffrey York [00:07:11] Yes, exactly. I mean, basically the principle for the inquiry is nobody is above the law. He’s been given every possible chance. He is now defying the court orders of the highest court in the land. We can’t allow someone to defy the courts and place themselves above the law. So it made this argument of the constitutional court. And a couple of weeks ago, the court agreed with the inquiry. It issued a ruling that Mr. Zuma should be taken to prison for 15 months. Again, Mr. Zuma defied that, stretched it out, refused to go, refused to surrender until the very last minute, which was last Wednesday night, basically late at night at the last possible minute, he agreed to be taken to prison, which is where he now is. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:08:04] So how was it then that going to jail sparked this massive nationwide protest? 

Geoffrey York [00:08:13] Well, it was not really a nationwide protest, I think that has to be clarified, it was a protest in a few areas of his stronghold, which is KwaZulu-Natal Province. And what happened basically is, you know -you have to consider that, if you look at South Africa as a whole, the explosive material has been gathering for many years and all Zuma did was light a match, really, because the potential was always there. In fact, the kind of lawlessness, impunity, mob violence, widespread kind of crime and corruption, attacks on businesses, and so on have been happening for many years in South Africa. And it’s become a tactic for business groups and political groups in various locations in South Africa. 

[00:09:12] And so when Mr. Zuma went to prison, his faction, I think it basically could see the writing on the wall that it had lost the internal power struggle within the African National Congress, the ruling party. It was now the losing faction. It was losing its traditional power. The fact that Mr. Zuma had been taken to prison was really a symbol of that. It was really the confirmation that he no longer had the influence even to stay out of prison. And I think there was an anger among his faction about that and a determination to show that they still have influence. So what we saw is on social media, on WhatsApp groups and so on, we saw an attempt to organize what they called a shutdown. That shutdown means that businesses and so on should shut down. And it’s basically a signal to people, to the supporters of Mr. Zuma, that when you’re doing a shutdown that can include violence, you can include arson, it can include looting, and so on. That’s the term shutdown is to some extent these days, especially seen as kind of a euphemism for a violent shutdown. 

A Power Struggle Lead to South Africa’s Widespread Protests

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:10:38] So the Zuma camp directly and deliberately sought to enact this euphemistic shutdown in order to apply pressure on the government or exact some sort of price for putting Zuma in jail? 

Geoffrey York [00:10:56] Yeah, I think so. And to restore its influence and to signal that it still had power within the ANC. But again, at a certain point, it went beyond the control of this faction. They may have lit the match, but I don’t think they really knew how far it would go. There are so many other factors at work -so much economic frustration, frustration over rising unemployment, a lack of economic hope, a lack of job opportunities, very severe inequality in the country. People in South Africa are surrounded by consumer goods in their shopping malls and so on, but most people can’t afford them. So it’s very much a rich and poor economy still. And that was another one of the key stimulating factors here. That kind of inequality that that exists is probably worse in South Africa than in any other country in the world, especially if you measure by standard measures like the Gini coefficient. The World Bank did a study saying that South Africa had the most inequality in the world. So severe inequality was certainly one of the factors here. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:12:16] The protests began in KwaZulu-Natal, which includes the city of Durban, and it spread, though. Could you kind of take us through the timeline of events as they have unfolded over the past week since the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma? 

Geoffrey York [00:12:35] Well, it certainly spread to Gauteng province, which is the economic heartland of the country where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. But really, it’s been only in those two provinces. Now, those are major, major provinces -the two most populous provinces in the country. But it is significant that this unrest and looting and so on did not happen in some of the poorer provinces of South Africa. So it would be simplistic to say that this is solely due to hunger or poverty. Those are contributing factors. But if you look at the bigger picture, the poorest parts of South Africa were not rioting. It was KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which are the two provinces where the Zuma camp has a fair amount of influence. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence. At the same time, you know, you could look at those two provinces also as places where there’s been a lot of anti-foreigner violence, attacks on foreign-owned shops, which have been going on for many years in South Africa and basically have been occurring with impunity because the police generally stand by and just watch. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:13:49] The looting and the rioting itself, were, at least from what I’ve read from reports and from your reporting, really widespread. You had sort of massive supply chain disruptions as well to the point where I’ve seen concerns about lack of food access in many places, lack of medicines. And it seems to have been also seemingly systematic in some cases. 

Geoffrey York [00:14:15] Yeah, I think that’s true, there seems to be evidence, again from Whatsapp groups and social media, that there was a targeting that went on -certain shopping malls or stores, businesses were targeted. And it’s not a coincidence that one of the biggest targets was this area with a lot of warehouses in the outskirts of Durban. Durban, being an ocean port and therefore receiving a lot of imported goods and having warehouses around the city to store those goods as they come in and then sort of being a distribution hub for the rest of the country. So these big warehouses existed and were generally targeted. Now, one question is, to what extent was that orchestrated, and to what extent was that simply people knowing where the most valuable goods were and possibly the goods that might be possible to loot? And so you had very systematic looting and ransacking going on where entire shopping malls were just completely gutted, everything stolen and then set on fire. So I think in total there were something like 200 shopping centers across South Africa in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces that were were ransacked and looted and many of them set on fire as well. So it was quite a large scale. 

What Was the Response to the Protests in South Africa?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:15:47] And what has the government response been so far? 

Geoffrey York [00:15:52] Well, the biggest response, certainly on a historical level, is that they’ve sent in the military. Initially, they deployed 2,500 troops. That was on Monday. A couple of days later, they doubled it to 5,000. And then late yesterday, they announced that the plan is to deploy 25,000 troops. Now, that’s actually more than they really have available in terms of infantry troops. So a lot of that would be support personnel and reserves and they may not actually hit that number. But 25,000 is a huge number. It would be probably a third of the entire armed forces and it would certainly be the biggest deployment of the South African military since the end of apartheid. So it’s a very big deal to have that kind of military deployment. And it really signals that the police have been incapable of controlling the situation. You know, you think back historically, it was only a decade ago South Africa hosted the World Cup and hired a lot more police and was able to have a very successful World Cup with very few incidents of violence or anything that would really embarrass the country. It was a hugely successful World Cup.

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:19] I almost bought a vuvuzela after watching that World Cup. 

Geoffrey York [00:17:22] That’s right. So it was quite internationally acclaimed as being very successful. And at that time, South Africa greatly increased the number of police that it had hired. Since then, the number of police have gone down. The budgets have been cut and that’s part of the problem is that the police are just not really capable of dealing with a large-scale event of this kind. But at the same time, it has to be pointed out that too often the police have just stood idly by and watched as violence or looting is taking place for years, actually, not just in this latest incident. I mean, 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:17:56] And that’s a point you make in a recently published piece in the Globe and Mail that there has been what you identify as this almost slow unraveling of the state that has taken place over the last several years. But you’ve had these incidents over the last several years. You describe the slow-scale looting of, say, train stations and the decimation of certain state functions that have happened slowly over the last several years. 

Geoffrey York [00:18:24] Yeah, and I think really it all stems back to the economy. I mean, if the economy was growing, this kind of looting probably would not be happening because people would have jobs. They’d have a sense of economic hope. There will be some optimism. But the economy has not been growing. It’s now six consecutive years where per capita incomes have not been growing. So basically GDP per capita has not grown or has declined for six years now. And meanwhile, unemployment has been increasing. So basically you’ve got young graduates of high school or university who have no prospect of jobs or very little prospect and that’s contributed to this incredible frustration. 

[00:19:11] At the same time, the government’s debt has increased considerably, especially during the Zuma presidency. A lot of that money was really wasted. There were inflated corrupt contracts, excessive hiring in the public service. And really the money did not go to badly needed infrastructure or even essential maintenance for things like the electricity monopoly. So you’ve had this kind of slow-motion crumbling of a lot of sectors of the state. Electricity, I mean, it’s now been more than 10 years of frequent electricity power outages which have come and gone depending on the situation. But the past two or three years, they’ve been happening at a fairly frequent pace again. And it’s because of a lack of maintenance of the electricity system where the monopoly, the state-controlled monopoly, has basically been spending a lot of its money on inflated contracts and corruption instead of maintenance. 

What Do the Protests and Riots in South Africa Suggest About the Future of South African Politics?

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:20:19] So I’ve been following your reporting, your work, from South Africa for as long as I can remember -for as long as I’ve been doing this, I’ve been reading your reporting. I’m curious to learn from you what this moment has revealed to you about the nature of society or politics in South Africa. As a foreign correspondent who’s been there for so long, what does this moment suggest to you about South Africa? 

Geoffrey York [00:20:47] Well, a couple of things. I think I should first be quick to say that it shows that South Africa is a very resilient society because it just keeps surviving this kind of thing. It keeps bouncing back. You know, after the looting basically ended, there’s been -all over the country, all over the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, there’s been massive cleanup efforts -volunteer efforts to reopen stores, to clean up the messes, to restore business, and so on. So it has to be said, it’s a very resilient society that has gone through a lot and has always managed to keep going. 

[00:21:29] At the same time, I think it really does speak to the fact that the ruling party, the ANC, has now been in power for 27 years. It shows no sign of giving up power. The opposition has been ineffective. Both of the two major opposition parties are just not very popular at all. They’re showing no signs of real significant growth. So that means that the ANC knows that it’s going to be staying in power. And the party has been basically kind of disintegrating into factional fighting, which has been incredibly damaging for the country. So you have politicians within different factions in the ANC fighting for power and putting themselves ahead of the country and doing huge damage to the country. And I think that’s the danger of having one party in power for 27 years and not feeling any fear of losing power. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:22:29] Lastly, you know, in the coming weeks and months even, what will suggest to you how this situation may unfold? Whether or not there will be some sort of reckoning or whether things will go back to normal or whether conflict and crisis will escalate. 

Geoffrey York [00:22:50] Well, I think that’s the key question because even as it’s now becoming clear that this particular crisis will get resolved -I mean if you mobilize 25,000 soldiers, you’re probably going to get a grip on things. And that seems to be what’s happening now. But the real question is, will it happen again? Has this been kind of a lesson to many people that they can do this and get away with it and that politicians within the ANC may see that this was actually although it didn’t achieve all of their goals, it was pretty good at creating a crisis that dominates the country and distracts the government. It may be a useful weapon to them for the future. And many ordinary people may also see that there’s not very many arrests from looting. There have been more than a thousand arrests, but there have been clearly many tens of thousands of people participating in the looting. So if the kind of sense of impunity continues as it has for many years, then this could easily happen again. And that’s the real danger. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:23:59] Well, Geoffery, thank you so much for your time. This is very helpful. 

Geoffrey York [00:24:03] Thank you. 

Mark Leon Goldberg [00:24:06] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Geoffrey York. We spoke kind of last minute, and I was glad for his flexibility and his availability to help explain to me and to you what is happening in South Africa at the moment. All right, we’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye.