Picture: African News Agency (ANA) – Some KZN residents are seen looted items after following widespread looting of shopping centres in the province in July 2021.
By Professor B. Dikela Majuqwana
In July 2021, South Africa experienced a period of unprecedented instability and unrest since the end of apartheid in 1994.
First, former President Jacob Zuma found himself behind bars for the second time in his life. This came about as a result of a constitutional court decision on June 29, last year to sentence him to 15 months in jail.
Zuma’s ‘crime’ was his decision to withdraw participation from the Zondo Commission into State Capture. Following his sentence, Zuma handed himself to police on the July 7.
The unrest took place immediately after that and intensified, leading to deaths estimated at around 354 in KwaZulu-Natal alone.
Casualties included about 20 people in the Indian suburb of Phoenix in Durban. Many of them were African believed to be victims of Indian vigilante violence. Economic costs of the unrest were estimated at R20 billion in KZN and R3.5 billion in Gauteng, accompanied by massive job losses due to closures of businesses.
The country and its neighbours experienced major supply chain disruptions arising from the unrest in Durban. These came in the form of shortages of food, fuels, medicines and disruptions of the Covid-19 vaccination programme. Many investors including Toyota Motor Corporation in Durban began to sound the alarm with warnings that their future presence in South Africa cannot be guaranteed if the unrest continues and negatively affects their operations.
A question that many observers and commentators often ask concerns the likelihood of a repeat of the unrest. To answer it requires that we appreciate both the causes and sources of that unrest.
Let us take a look at these.
The decision by the constitutional court to sentence Zuma was a clear direct cause of the unrest. In The SA constitution became its own worst enemy, producing conflict in society instead of preventing it. This is because the constitutional court judges chose to sentence Zuma to jail even though they had other options of sanctioning him.
At the time Zuma was already elderly at 79 years of age. Any humanitarian judge not driven by hatred would have taken that into account. Instead of imposing a jail sentence, they could have opted for a fine and perhaps confine his freedom of movement to his Nkandla homestead.
Instead, when Zuma appeared to be refusing to hand himself to the police, massive mobilization of heavily armed police was on display for everyone to see and fear at a time when many were buckling under lockdown. A constitution that professes human rights in words was in practice brandishing weapons of extreme violence to induce public fear.
It is this conduct that triggered a feeling in the minds of many humanists that an injustice was being perpetrated in forcing a former President of South Africa and the ANC to jail. Some reacted by mobilizing their political supporters to attack whatever they could, leading to the July unrest we witnessed in 2021. The unrest was a strong message to constitutionalism in South Africa that something had gone terribly wrong.
When considering the indirect causes and sources of the unrest, many have cited the desperate economic situation of the people and life under the Covid-19 lockdown regime they endured since March 2020. The lockdown created a situation where life became a daily struggle under already difficult economic conditions. A keen observer of economic facts will not fail to notice that South Africa’s economy has been stagnant and not growing since 2011.
When Ramaphosa assumed office he promised a new dawn while at the same time renouncing his own role Zuma’s Deputy, calling the Zuma administration “nine wasted years”. Meanwhile, instead of a new dawn, South Africans found themselves under lockdown martial law without jobs and facing much greater economic uncertainties than before.
At the time the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was already projecting that South Africa’s economy was set to shrink by as much as 7.5% or more.
This economic decline was a far cry from a new dawn of prosperity under Ramaphosa. The future suddenly looked hellish. What more was there to lose that to enforce a new dawn by forcibly snatching goods from shops? That’s exactly what happened during the July 2021 unrest in KZN and Gauteng.
As we commemorate last year’s unrest this year, it is well for us to appreciate that the same causes and sources have not miraculously disappeared. One may be even bold enough to say that we cannot rule out political instability and unrest on a much bigger nationwide scale.
Unlike the events of last year which were disruptive and desperate in nature, future instability might be more organized and purposeful with the intent to resuscitate political autonomy and the hope of freedom from what many see as constitutional oppression. While Zuma’s constitutional arrest was the sole direct cause and source of the unrest, the next disruption might have several deriving from local conditions.
Already we can see that since the local government elections in 2021, the ANC has lost a lot of ground as a governing party. It is no longer wielding total power. With national elections due in 2024, there is already plenty of activity to energise communities to vote one way or another.
What is presently upsetting many is the apparent lawlessness in the country is apparently for the benefit of already wealthy ANC leaders.
This is exacerbated by reports alleging that, for example, President Ramaphosa is stashing millions of US dollars in one of his properties, a farm called Phala-Phala in Limpopo.
In the eyes of the fair-minded public, all this underscores their belief that the legal system in South Africa favours some and that Zuma is not among those but Ramaphosa is. Meanwhile, for many, the economic situation is far from improving since the recent floods that almost destroyed infrastructure in Durban and surrounding areas.
Prices of goods began to escalate soon after the July unrest, a trend that has accelerated recently following Russia’s military action in Ukraine. Up to now, rising prices have not been accompanied by rising wages. People are becoming poorer. We have more or less the same conditions that led to the Arab Spring in December 2010.
Majuqwana is Head of Engineering at the University of Zululand. He writes in his personal capacity.