Instability in South Africa and the Zuma factor

Instability in South Africa and the Zuma factor


Earlier this month, unrest and a series of riots spread across two of South Africa’s most important provinces, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Without the capability to respond decisively, violence spread in these regions, leaving at least 215 people dead. Over the course of last week, President Ramaphosa deployed 10,000 members of the South African Defence Force, with 15,000 more arriving to reinforce local police. With hundreds of stores looted or damaged, and critical supply routes to ports and other areas of the country blocked by rioters, South Africa has entered a phase of instability it hasn’t seen in a long time. These riots seem to have one main factor: former president Jacob Zuma.

Zuma was sentenced on June 29th for contempt of court, specifically for refusing to appear to testify in a corruption investigation of illegal activities, led by the Zondo Commission, established during his presidency to investigate multiple crimes, including “state capture”. This is a practice of siphoning money from state assets, with the Gupta scandal being the most notorious example of this crime during his presidency. Zuma refused to turn himself in to authorities, and many of his supporters gathered in his private residence in KwaZulu-Natal, leading to a week-long standoff. However, he turned himself in voluntarily right before midnight of the July 7th deadline. Uncoincidentaly, the riots began the following day. His imprisonment was, therefore, the spark of the current violence that has been plaguing the country for the past two weeks.

Aside from his arrest, Zuma and those around him have made claims and statements that have arguably fomented the unfolding unrest. Notably, Zuma has made statements claiming that he is the target of a political conspiracy. His daughter has also been accused of inciting violence recently, due to comments she made on Twitter, even using the hashtag “Ramaphosa [current president] Must Fall”. Charges have been filed against her by the leader of the Democratic Alliance, a South African political party, with allies of Zuma claiming this is yet another persecution of the Zuma family.

Furthermore, these riots have served to highlight South Africa’s economic issues. Being one of the world’s most unequal countries, the high rates of unemployment, poverty, and food insecurity, which have only worsened due to the global pandemic, are underlying factors that were sparked by Zuma’s arrest.

Lastly, an important element to the current violence could have its roots in ethnic conflict. Zuma is Zulu, and with a history of ethnic tensions between the Zulu and the Xhosa in the country, this tribalism could be having an effect in the riots. President Ramaphosa addressed this in a public statement, stating: “It is a matter of concern to all South Africans that some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilisation”. Although there is no indication that the unrest and riots are due to ethnic tensions, it certainly could be playing a role. This is mainly due to Zuma’s ethnicity and his allegations of a conspiracy against him, potentially fueling pre-existing tensions.

With hundreds of people dead and thousands of businesses looted or burnt to the ground, the current riots are a troubling reminder that despite democratization, South Africa still needs to strengthen its democratic institutions to allow the justice system to function as it should. Zuma’s recent arrest should have been uncontroversial: he refused to testify, which falls under contempt of court. If hundreds die from this, it is frightening to think what will happen if the former president is arrested for multiple corruption charges in the coming months.