South Africa: Zuma trying to hold on to power, citizens suffering

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The recent problems in South Africa show how easy it is for riots to start there, writes Glen Retief.


Former president Jacob Zuma at the 2009 World Economic Forum on Africa. Credit: Eric Miller/WEF

In the past, people thought former president Jacob Zuma was a hero and a good person. South Africans thanked him for bringing peace to the KwaZulu-Natal province in the 1990s, for controlling the HIV epidemic in the 2000s, and for inspiring millions of people with his story of growing up poor. He used to laugh at biographers and journalists who wanted to write about him, saying he was just a normal person.

This fit the idea that he was a normal Zulu boy who never forgot his roots and who also was in prison at Robben Island prison and a close comrade of Nelson Mandela.

But now, this seems ridiculous. Over the past two weeks JZ Msholozi (his other name) has inspired the most intense military riots in South Africa’s almost 30-year democracy.

People over the whole world have heard about Zuma’s financial crimes. There are 3 main stories: first, that his administration (2009 to 2018) took at least $3.4 billion through corruption; second, that he allowed the very rich Gupta family to control the police, treasury and state businesses; and third, that he refused to answer questions about these – so he got a 15-month prison sentence.

Midnight 7 July was the time for Zuma’s arrest. Armed supporters came to Zuma’s house. They said they would start a civil war if Zuma was arrested (like the protestors who broke into the US Capitol on 6 January).

But Zuma had already gone to the police just before midnight, maybe wanting to stop the riots. The riots started, and analysts now think this was all planned.

The magazine New Frame says that the choice of targets for burning or shutting down did not seem random, but planned: the N3 highway - the main link between Pretoria and Johannesburg and the Durban harbour; malls and shopping centers; warehouses; factories; cellphone towers; supply routes to Durban’s large oil refinery; and community radio stations.

There was a lot of destruction - more than 200 malls and shopping centres were looted. But the South African Police Service responded to these ‘food riots’ in very different ways.

In provinces with most support for the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa (eg. Mpumalanga and Northwest), police quickly stopped the riots. But in areas that support Zuma (eg. KZN and parts of Gauteng) the police stayed away. So maybe Zuma supporters took control of regional security.

On 13 July, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and Police Minister Bheki Cele said that security services had stopped more attacks: on an ANC provincial office, an electrical substation, and a prison. The Daily Maverick also said that police were investigating 12 people from Zuma’s intelligence for starting the riots; 6 of these have now been arrested. The Maverick published some WhatsApp messages that could show Zuma intelligence people discussing how to make the chaos worse.

Some people say the aim of the riots was to get the government to kill civilians. This would mean the African National Congress would remove Ramaphosa as party leader and president, and Zuma’s supporters could get control again. But this did not happen.

The communities are cleaning up in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and Johannesburg. A week after the riots began, the N3 highway reopened. But, with no police, armed community security groups in KZN still control local checkpoints. The refinery that supplies a third of the country’s petroleum and the port are still shut. There will be food shortages soon; Durban customers queue to buy food in the few open supermarkets.

It is difficult to see how the riots now benefit Zuma or his supporters. Ramaphosa will probably have a stronger position in the ANC.

But the riots showed South Africa can explode easily. It has 75 per cent youth unemployment and the world’s worst inequality. So they need to do something about the economic problems as soon as possible. In the next few months, South Africa’s government will need international solidarity, to defend the democratic gains of the anti-apartheid movement, and to improve the unjust economic conditions that keep it unstable.

Glen Retief writes for the South African newspaper, The Daily Maverick; teaches at Susquehanna University; and is a 2021-22 Fulbright US Scholar in Mamelodi, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)