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Explained: Why South Africa is witnessing its worst violence in years

While the violence may have been spurred on by the imprisonment of Zuma, it's being fanned by underlying problems in the country amid a raging pandemic and failing economy.

People stand on the roadside after being evicted following protests that have widened into looting, in Durban, South Africa July 13, 2021. (Reuters)

The unrest in South Africa, set off last week after the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, has claimed 72 lives so far. The police and the military have resorted to firing stun grenades and rubber bullets to contain the situation.

The rioting originated in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), where he is serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court, after failing to appear for a corruption inquiry. It has also spread to other provinces like Mpumalanga, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, and Northern Cape. Warehouses and stores have also been ransacked in the economic capital Johannesburg and Durban.

Amid the lawlessness, Covid-19 vaccination centres were closed even as the country reels under the third wave of Covid-19 infections.

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What triggered the protests in South Africa?

Protests began over calls for release of Zuma, who served the country from 2009-18 and is facing corruption charges. Former Cabinet ministers, high-ranking government officials and executives of state-owned enterprises have implicated Zuma in corruption. Testimonies state that his appointment of Cabinet ministers was influenced by the controversial Gupta family.

Zuma also faces charges related to bribes that he allegedly received during South Africa’s 1999 arms procurement deal.

While the violence may have been spurred on by the imprisonment of Zuma, it’s being fanned by underlying problems in the country amid a raging pandemic and failing economy.

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Last year, the country had witnessed its sharpest decline in annual GDP since 1946, with a contraction of 7 per cent in the economy, Reuters reported in March. Since then, with the lockdown and restrictions on businesses, South Africa’s economy has struggled to make a recovery.

According to the news agency, unemployment stood at a record high of 32.6 per cent in the first three months of 2021. The Wall Street Journal also reported that a survey conducted in March and April found that more than 10 million people, nearly a sixth of the population, had experienced hunger over the past seven days

“It is simply a feedback for discontent. We cannot ignore the socioeconomic roots of this thing and what got it to escalate to this point,” political analyst Ralph Mathekga told The Washington Post.

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Members of the military patrol past looted shops as the country deploys army to quell unrest linked to jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, in Soweto, South Africa, July 13, 2021. (Reuters)

How has the government responded to the violence?

President Cyril Ramaphosa has stated that there is no justification to the violence.

“While there are those who may be hurt and angry at this moment, there can never be any justification for such violent, destructive and disruptive actions,” Ramaphosa was quoted as saying by Reuters. He added that the looting and violence was damaging efforts to rebuild the economy.

Premier David Makhura of Gauteng province has accused “criminal element” for hijacking the situation and creating further unrest. Echoing his statement, KZN police spokesman Jay Naicker told AP, “We saw a lot of criminals or opportunistic individuals trying to enrich themselves during this period.”

In an interview with the state-run South African Broadcasting Corp, Makhura asserted, “We understand that the situation has been made worse by the pandemic.” He added, “looting is undermining our businesses here (in Soweto). It is undermining our economy, our community. It is undermining everything.”

Premier of KZN Sihle Zikalala has also condemned the violence, AP reported, stating that calls for Zuma’s release have turned into an “unprecedented and extremely disturbing situation as it poses a threat to human life and carries the potential to destabilise our country at a time when we are all trying to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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Mathekga, however, termed the blaming of criminals as an “easy” option and added, “You have to ask why has our society got so many young people able and available to do these things? Because they’re not at work.”

The government has deployed its army to support the South African police, however, the rioting and looting haven’t stopped.

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A fire engulfs Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, following protests that have widened into looting in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa July 13, 2021. (Reuters)

What has been the cost of rioting?

According to Zikalala, over a billion rands have already been incurred in damages. Economists, however, predict a doubling of this cost as businesses are forced to shut down and some have been set on fire.

Reuters reported that the country’s largest refinery SAPREF in the east coast port city of Durban has been forced to temporarily shut down due to the looting. Experts, including the United Nations, has warned that such disturbances and continued rioting could “exacerbate” the problem.

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Smoke rises from burning trucks after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in Hillcrest, South Africa, July 14, 2021. (Reuters)

At least 1,234 people, including women, children and older citizens, have been arrested in Gauteng and KZN, and a 100 more from Johannesburg have been apprehended for stealing from shops inside the Mayfair Square mall.

The Alex FM radio station, which had been running in the Alexandra town for the last 27 years, was also forced to shut down after thieves stole equipment worth 5 million rand. Several hospitals including the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto have reported an increase in the number of injured people, putting a pressure on the healthcare services dealing with the coronavirus pandemic simultaneously.

First published on: 14-07-2021 at 06:20:35 pm
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