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Why South Africans are rioting

Why South Africans are rioting


South Africa has seen an outbreak of widespread violence and looting. What’s going on?

Claudia Williams: Hi, I’m Claudia – and this is Sensemaker 

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today… South Africa is in turmoil. After a week of unrest, riots and destruction. 

“Looting on a massive scale, windows smashed, hundreds of stores set on fire.”

NBC news report

“Shops were looted and protestors took to the streets in South Africa’s main economic hub on Sunday as sporadic acts of violence spread to Johannesburg.”

Reuters report

Shops and supermarkets were ransacked; warehouses burned to the ground, and thousands of businesses destroyed. They now face a difficult time ahead as they look to recover.

In parts of the country, food, fuel and medicines are in short supply. Burned-out trucks have blocked major roads. 

The violence over the past week is the worst in decades. More than 2,000 rioters have been arrested and more than 100 people have died

To bring an end to the chaos, the government sent in 25,000 soldiers.

But what triggered all this? 


“Government statistics show that poverty levels have increased since 2011, with 14 million South africans now living in extreme poverty, on less that $1 a day”

Al Jazeera report

The trouble in South Africa has been brewing for a long time. The country has the highest official unemployment rate in the world. 

Decades after the end of apartheid, inequality is still a major issue. 

Around half the population lives in poverty… and the coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse. 

The first lockdown – in March 2020 – decimated the incomes of millions of people. 

And right now, South Africa is in the grip of a third wave. 

The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has locked things back down: there are curfews and restrictions on gatherings and travel. 

The medical system is struggling to cope with the number of new infections. 

Many people blame the government for the desperate situation: they say that Cyril Ramaphosa has been slow to act. 

Only 2 and a half per cent of the population in South Africa is fully vaccinated. 


But there’s more to all this…

Because what first sparked this wave of unrest was one man, and one arrest. 

“Zuma is behind bars tonight. Two weeks ago, the country’s highest court sentenced him to 15 months in prison for contempt of court.”

DW news report

On Wednesday 7th July, the former president, Jacob Zuma handed himself over to the police. 

He’d been found guilty of contempt of court. 

Days later, protests and riots began spreading across two provinces: KwaZulu Natal, Jacob Zuma’s home state, and Gauteng. 

So, why has his jailing caused so much upset? 


For a lot of South Africans, Jacob Zuma is a hero. 

He was one of the activists who fought hard against South Africa’s apartheid system of white supremacy.

He spent ten years locked up on Robben Island, that’s the jail where political prisoners like Nelson Mandela were held. 

But as he rose to power, his reputation was stained by allegations of serious corruption. 

He was accused of taking bribes from a French company in an arms deal in the 1990s, when he was deputy president.

“A decade-long corruption charge has finally caught up with former South Africa president Jacob Zuma.”

Euronews report

And in 2018, Jacob Zuma, was charged 

with bribery, fraud, racketeering and money laundering. 

Sixteen counts.

Under his nine-year presidency, the government was riddled with corruption too. 

It ran so deep and through so many institutions of government that it’s been called “state capture”. In other words… it was a country captured by corruption.

For years…. ministries and state governments have failed to provide basic services like water, electricity and sanitation.  

Right now, there’s an inquiry investigating “state capture” during Jacob Zuma’s time in office. 

But… from the very beginning, he’s denied the corruption charges. 

He and his political supporters have framed the investigations as a “witch hunt” and a plot to get rid of him: 

“I’ve been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people.”

Jacob Zuma

Then, earlier this year, he refused to appear in court to answer the charges. 

And that’s where this contempt of court verdict comes in. 

The judgement, handed down last month by one of the members of South Africa’s top court, was searing: 

“The Constitutional Court holds that it is disturbing that he, who twice swore allegiance to the Republic, its laws and the Constitution, has sought to ignore, undermine and, in many ways, destroy the rule of law altogether.”

Acting Deputy Chief Justice Sisi Khampepe, SABC

Jacob Zuma, who once held the highest office in the land, had failed to respect one of its most fundamental democratic principles. 

In fact, the court decided that his conduct was so serious – he had to serve prison time for it. 

That judgement made his supporters pretty angry. They had already warned that if Jacob Zuma went to go jail – things could get ugly.

“We have warned that if President Zuma is going to be imprisoned there’s going to be instability and unrest in South Africa.”

Carl Niehaus, SABC


Right now South African prosecutors are investigating whether the rioting was, at least at first, coordinated. Was it planned by supporters of the former president to pressure the government into suspending Jacob Zuma’s sentence?

One person has been arrested for instigating the riots and 11 others are under police surveillance. 

Since Jacob Zuma was South Africa’s first Zulu president – and the unrest began in his home state, a Zulu-majority province – some commentators have suggested there’s an ethnic dimension to the violence. 

The president, Cyril Ramaphosa appeared to join them, describing it as “ethnic mobilisation”. 

But people’s loyalty to Jacob Zuma goes beyond tribal affiliation. He’s still popular in South Africa because he’s a really charismatic politician – and his populist political style, promising radical redistribution of wealth, earned him a devoted following. 

Cyril Ramaphosa, said on Friday that he suspected things were organised: 

​​“It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, a coordinated and a well-planned attack on our democracy.”

Cyril Ramaphosa, Friday 16 July

And journalists on the ground earlier in the week said similar things. 

“It does look like this is well-coordinated and well planned. You will recall his supporters did say there would be lawlessness and anarchy and that they would render SA ungovernable if the former president were to be jailed.” 

BBC World News report

Zuma’s followers had promised disorder: and it looked like this was it. 

The fact that the rioters targeted basic infrastructure, roads, warehouses and food shops – everything that’s essential to supply chains…and daily life… – made it seem like there was some design behind it. 

Still… as the riots grew and the chaos spread… the unrest became more about people’s frustration at years of joblessness, inequality and grinding poverty. 

South Africa has many problems… Jacob Zuma is just one of them. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.

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