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SOUTH AFRICA: Unrest is bigger than Zuma but when will it die down?

Table of Contents

  • Unrest may continue at least for the next few days, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), after ex-president Jacob Zuma was remanded in custody for contempt of court.
  • Zuma's imprisonment was the spark that has ignited the #freeZuma and #shutdown unrest, but the disturbances appear to lack a clear political owner and are probably by underlying socio-economic deprivation.
  • With the army now being deployed, expectations are that the situation will be brought under control over the course of the week, but prolonged violence could see long-standing questions over the risk of a “South Africa spring” resurface.

Zuma's legal travails

Today, 12 July, the Constitutional Court (CC) heard ex-president Jacob Zuma's recission application. Zuma is appealing his 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court after he repeatedly refused to appear before the Zondo commission investigating state capture. Zuma began serving his prison sentence last week, but not without a tense standoff between police and an estimated few hundred supporters at his Nkandla homestead. He now looks set to remain in prison at least until the CC hands down its decision (probably in a week's time), but likely longer as the court is not expected to overturn its prior judgment.

The judicial process appears to have been done by the book. Even the fact that the court accepted to hear the recission application signals that the judiciary wants Zuma to be seen to be given every possible opportunity of a fair hearing, despite his refusal to participate in aspects of his contempt of court hearing. He even refused to reply to an opportunity from the CC to provide his opinion regarding which sanction – e.g. a fine, prison or suspended sentence – his side deemed appropriate for his contempt of court charge. Yet despite all due process seemingly being followed, Zuma's hardcore allies are propagating the narrative that he is being “imprisoned without trial” and is the “first political prisoner” in post-apartheid South Africa.

Protests are bigger than Zuma

Zuma's imprisonment was the spark that has ignited the #freeZuma and #shutdown protests, which have concentrated on KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng, but sporadic incidents have also been reported in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. KZN has been the worst affected province, with vandalism, looting and torching causing asset damage currently estimated at a “conservative” ZAR 100mn (USD 7mn) and massive disruption to transport, wider economic activity and even medical services, including Covid-19 vaccinations that were finally accelerating.

Beyond social media vitriol propagated by hardcore Zuma allies including two of his (many) children and Mzwandile Manyi, the “protests” seem to lack a clear political owner or central coordination. Even if they are likely fanned by Zulu nationalism, there is no sign of protesters with a clear political message coming out in numbers. Rather, not unlike past xenophobic riots, the protests have been dominated by what appears to be opportunistic looting and vandalism. After all, people emerging from malls with plasma TVs or whiskey bottles hardly screams “Free Zuma.”

Most importantly, the disturbances are spreading opportunistically – including but not exclusively via social media and chat groups – in a context of social deprivation, unemployment and hunger, all aggravated by the pandemic. Unemployment, based on the narrow definition that excludes discouraged jobseekers, rose to 32.6% in Q1; under the expanded definition, this rate reached 43.2% and 74.9% for youths aged 15-24. This will increase pressure on the Ramaphosa administration, which is being criticized for failing to provide fresh social support despite returning to “Level 4” lockdowns to combat the current third Covid-19 wave.

What next?

Ramaphosa has been reluctant to be seen too close to the issue (other than the ANC leadership's collective strong statement in support of the judiciary last week) but is coming under growing pressure to show leadership in response to the disturbances. A statement over the weekend appealed for calm and, while acknowledging the right to protest, warned against violence and looting. It remains to be seen whether Ramaphosa's address tonight will move the needle.

Deployments of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), which is being deployed to KZN and Gauteng hotspots, may be expanded over the coming days. This could help calm the situation over the course of the week or so, but the Ramaphosa administration also needs to avoid large-scale loss of life and accusations of security forces brutality. Already, six people have been reported dead; about 219 have reportedly been arrested so far.

A worst-case scenario would combine looting becoming much more widespread, violence between protesters and security forces, and people turning out in larger numbers onto the streets. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) today threatened to join the protests if the SANDF were deployed. This is most likely an attempt to stay relevant ahead of the municipal elections (currently due on 27 October), but populist leaders like Julius Malema likely have the power to be able to exert a calming influence, or fan the flames.

The mainstream media has tried not to exaggerate (or perhaps even downplayed) the violence, while social media – particularly Zuma-linked accounts – seem to be using incident footage to incite further violence. If the violence worsens or protests swell or become more coordinated, the long-standing question around the risk of a “South African spring” may start to resurface.

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SOUTH AFRICA: Unrest is bigger than Zuma but when will it die down?

Unrest may continue at least for the next few days, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), after ex-president Jacob Zuma was remanded in custody for contempt