In South Africa, the death toll has exceeded 200 as rioters and looters continue to wreak havoc. Tensions peaked earlier this month after former President Jacob Zuma was arrested for refusing to appear before a judicial inquiry into corruption charges brought against him. Violence erupted when, on July 7th, Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. Most of the unrest has been concentrated in the populous province of Gauteng as well as KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home and political stronghold.
Mobs of angry civilians have looted supermarkets, destroyed factories, burned warehouses, and vandalized clinics. The chaos has cost the country’s already battered economy between $400 million and $1 billion, according to initial industry estimates reported by The Guardian. However, independent analysts at Moneyweb, a South African media company, say the damages may come closer to $3 billion. Small businesses “will find it difficult to rise from the ashes,” said Risenga Malukele, the head of Statistics South Africa. He predicts that it could take years to rebuild damaged infrastructure.
South Africa’s sitting president, Cyril Ramaphosa, says the violence was pre-planned and intended to provoke an insurrection. The government has described the unrest as “economic sabotage” that was orchestrated to undermine Ramaphosa’s credibility. Former President Jacob Zuma still has staunch allies in the intelligence services and a faction that remains fiercely loyal to him, says BBC News. However, it remains unclear whether this played a role in the violence. The truth behind the protests has also been muddied by the spread of misinformation online.
Tensions were high even before Zuma’s arrest. Half of South Africa’s citizens live below the poverty line and unemployment hit a record 32% during the first quarter of 2021. In interviews with the New York Times, several citizens admitted that they joined the looting because they saw others doing it and went after basic necessities for fear of supply shortages. “The government is failing us,” said one unemployed worker who joined the looters. President Ramaphosa continues to face criticism for failing to provide decisive leadership during the crisis. The test is not over, either. South African authorities fear a new wave of attacks organized by networks loyal to Zuma, and many citizens are calling on Ramaphosa to deploy more troops.
The use of the military, though, is a highly sensitive matter. The memories of South Africa’s infamous states of emergency during apartheid make the country’s leadership reluctant to establish a greater military presence in the affected regions. The 25,000 soldiers it has sent so far already mark the largest deployment since the end of apartheid. Yet, with hours-long lines for food and gas-forming in ravaged cities, Ramaphosa has been pushed into a corner. “The most important lesson is, in the end, that we must tighten up our security forces,” he announced last Sunday. This will only solve part of the problem. Regardless of his actual involvement in the violence, Jacob Zuma needs to publicly denounce the lawlessness and encourage his supporters to avail themselves of democratic institutions for voicing disagreement instead. Multilateral aid and humanitarian organizations must channel resources to South Africa to prevent the shortages from driving further civil unrest. Whatever the reasons behind the looting and rioting, food shortages and further disruptions to South Africa’s vaccine rollout will only destabilize the situation.
The foreign aid organizations entering South Africa must maintain an apolitical stance and take deliberate steps to dissociate themselves from any military presence. Aside from this, these food supply programs should consider joining forces with vaccination initiatives in order to serve a larger subset of the population. Otherwise, South Africa risks a humanitarian crisis that will only inflame the growing political troubles. For Ramaphosa, time is of the essence.
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