Why South Africa Just Suffered Its Worst Riots Since Apartheid

The jailing of South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, in July triggered protests that devolved into the worst violence -- at least 215 people dead during days of rampant looting and arson -- the country has seen since the end of apartheid in 1994. The upheaval wasn’t just about politics, though. It also was driven by persistent and deep inequalities that have been exacerbated by the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic, and has spurred the government to devise new plans to fight poverty.

1. Why was Zuma jailed?

The Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma -- who’d resigned in 2018 under threat of impeachment -- had to testify before a judicial commission to respond to allegations that he’d facilitated and been party to endemic corruption during his years in power. He refused and charged that acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, who is heading the inquiry, was biased against him (an allegation Zondo denies). Zuma was then convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to 15 months in jail. He was arrested after refusing to turn himself in. Zuma, who maintains his innocence, accuses the top court of convicting him without a trial and of not giving him the opportunity to argue for a lighter sentence. He’ll be eligible for parole as soon as November, but could spend longer behind bars if convicted in a separate, ongoing bribery case.

2. Who was protesting?

While his political influence has diminished, Zuma, 79, retains solid backing in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal -- the epicenter of the rioting -- and among some members of his Zulu ethnic group, who buy his argument that the charges against him are politically motivated.

3. Why did it spiral?

The violence was fueled by widespread outrage over high levels of poverty and a lack of jobs. It coincided with the extension of a coronavirus lockdown that’s hurting businesses and robbed many people of their livelihoods, in a nation with a 32.6% unemployment rate. The economy shrank 7% last year, the biggest contraction in a century. South Africa already had one of the world’s most unequal societies: The top fifth of the population receive more than 68% of income, compared with 47% for an index of emerging markets, data published by the International Monetary Fund in 2020 showed.

4. How bad did it get?

Many of those who joined the protests appeared to be taking advantage of the instability to loot stores and better their dire economic circumstances. Mobs took to looting homes in some areas after stores were cleared out. Clashes in KwaZulu-Natal and the central Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, the economic hub, and which also has a large Zulu population, stretched out for a week before the police and thousands of soldiers restored order. The government has labeled the protests as sedition and economic sabotage, and several alleged instigators have been arrested.

5. What’s the damage?

The unrest cost the country about $3.4 billion in lost output and placed 150,000 jobs at risk, according to the South African Property Owners Association. About 200 malls were targeted and some 3,000 shops looted, while 200 banks and post offices were vandalized. Telecommunications towers were destroyed along with other infrastructure, and a program to vaccinate people against the coronavirus was disrupted. The unrest has weighed on the rand, which slumped to near a four-month low against the dollar.

6. What’s the likely fallout?

The protests have given impetus to proposals that the government pay cash stipends to address the country’s poverty and inequality; Ramaphosa said the so-called basic income grant was under “serious consideration,” and discussions are under way to determine its feasibility. The government is also working on a separate support package for businesses and individuals affected by the turmoil to help support the economic recovery. Politically, the violence has undermined the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa’s authority and placed the ruling African National Congress at risk of losing its grip on KwaZulu-Natal province, the second-largest, with 11.5 million people, in a country of about 60 million.

7. Where did Zuma come from?

A former intelligence operative, Zuma spent a decade in prison for fighting against White minority rule. He rose through the ranks of the ANC after his release and became deputy president in 1999. He was fired from the post in 2005 after being implicated in a scandal involving bribes from arms dealers -- a case that’s still dragging on. He staged a comeback with the support of labor unions to win control of the ANC in 2007 and the presidency in 2009. During his almost nine years in office, government debt and the state’s wage bill skyrocketed. Dozens of witnesses who’ve testified before the Zondo commission have placed him at the center of an orchestrated campaign to loot state coffers. The government estimates that more than $34 billion was stolen.

8. What forced Zuma out?

The ANC hemorrhaged public support in 2016 municipal elections and lost control of several major cities. Zuma resigned in 2018, two months after he stepped down as the party’s leader. Ramaphosa took control of the party after narrowly defeating Zuma’s ex-wife and favored successor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the former head of the African Union Commission, in an internal election.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Opinion’s Clara Ferreira Marques describes Covid as the salt in South Africa’s wounds, and Boingotlo Gasealahwe from Bloomberg Intelligence examines the social fault lines.
  • A photo essay on Zuma’s career up to his resignation.
  • An interview Zuma gave to state television in 2018 about his ouster.
  • Bloomberg Businessweek: “The Brothers Who Bought South Africa.”
  • A QuickTake on the ANC’s effort to move past the Zuma era.

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