In The Aftermath Of The Rioting In South Africa

Over 300 people are believed to have been killed in the riots in South Africa that took place in the last month. Beginning with protests, the situation escalated into riots that involved looting and violence in townships in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. Sino Ngema, a community activist, told Al Jazeera “I can’t believe that a young man lost his life here over a bottle of cold drink, over a mere 20 rand ($1.40). Another boy who was shot in Alexandra was just standing near the mall. It’s just not fair.”

The riot was reportedly caused by the 15 month sentence the former president Jacob Zuma received after refusing to testify in a corruption inquiry. When the sentence was announced his supporters reportedly took to the streets to protest. The protests and the rioting that followed are seen as a sign of the deep split within the ANC party between those that support the ex-president and those that support the current one, Cyril Ramaphosa. However, many point to inequality, poverty, and rising unemployment as contributing factors to the rioting. The ongoing pandemic has further intensified tensions in the country. According to William Gumede, a South African economist and political scientist, the Covid-19 pandemic has lead to South Africa’s biggest financial crisis in a century. Unemployment is at 32.6 percent, the highest recorded since Statistics South Africa began following quarterly figures 13 years ago.

In the wake of last month’s events President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that the rioters’ aim was “insurrection” and stated that over two thousand people have been arrested. Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs, claims that “Ramaphosa is insisting this is an insurrection because he wants to be given a free hand to suppress the urban poor and to use more force against the urban poor.” He told the New York Times “The ANC doesn’t need their vote, it’ll win based on the rural vote.” In a recent article Daniel den Hollander described the situation very differently than the president. He writes: “Anger comes from being denied the right to a better life. Those who hold the power hold the access. When they bar us from financial independence, degrade us to unemployment through lockdown restrictions, then blame us for the high infection rates, we become blinded with anger.” Thapelo Mohapi, the former general secretary of the civil organization Abahlali baseMjondolo, told Al Jazeera “We have always said that people’s anger will go in many directions. We know that people saw an opportunity to avoid going to bed hungry and they took it.”  He also notes, “If you look closely, the people that have been arrested for looting are people that have lost jobs, live in poverty, and are hungry.”

Reducing the riot to criminality minimizes the issues and lived realities of many in South Africa. In a recent Al Jazeera article Tafi Mhaka pointed out that similar riots have happened in South Africa before. He mentions the xenophobic attacks of 2008 and those in 2015, 2018, and 2019. These violent events were partially motivated by the still lingering “apartheid mentality”. The apartheid system was a racist system that touched almost all parts of South African society and instilled racial, ethnic, and national differences as a basis for rights and resources or lack thereof. Whole cities, industries, and economies were built on the basis of apartheid and ideas of white superiority. The structures of apartheid and colonialism still exist to some degree and affect South Africa. Amira Osman points out, “The structure of our cities was carefully planned to benefit a minority and keep cheap black labour close by, but not a part of, the city — it was not done by accident.” The hopes for South Africa were high after apartheid both within the country and outside it, but the promise of the “rainbow” nation has not been fulfilled yet. For example, poverty disproportionately affects the black community, and xenophobia toward people that are perceived as immigrants or “too black” is common.

It might be easy to focus on the violence and failings taking place in South Africa, but there is also a grassroots engagement taking place. Some see this as a reason to be optimistic about the future and as a sign of a new kind of politics. One of those who volunteered in the aftermath is Margaret Westerhof, who commented “It’s amazing, the patriotic nature of a South African.” Yes, the challenges are huge for South Africa: the legacy of apartheid is still shaping the country, the inequality is extreme, the poverty and unemployment are high, the political divide in ANC is growing, and the pandemic has heightened all of these aspects. These are not small challenges but to pessimistically wait for the country to become a “failed” state, as some political commentators appear to, is problematic. Jess Auerbach writes in an article on, “My hope is that those far away at least try to see the nuance in the narrative: we are not a failed state, but a failed global system.” Apostle Motsepe, a pastor at a Durban church, was helping to clean up the streets when he told NBC News “we came to show people that they must not only focus on the … bad things happening all over the country. They must also focus on the good.”  The hope for South Africa might not currently be found in its elite, but it can be found in the people of South Africa’s commitment, resilience, and determination to have a better future. It is found in the communities that come together to protect one another, in the civil society that helps feed hungry people, the volunteers that clean the street, the looters that return stolen goods, and in the calls for Ubuntu rather than revenge. As Omar Duwaji has noted, “I think what we’ve learned now is that South Africa’s judiciary and other democratic institutions, the press and civil society are very strong.”

In the aftermath of the riots that took place in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces there is hope for a new path and a new kind of politics for South Africa. While the riots have been framed as an ‘insurgency’ many experts point out that they are tied to underlying issues in South Africa, including extreme inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The challenges that South Africa face are big, but the civil society engagement that is taking place is a source of hope for a different future.


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