South Africa was a tinderbox. The ANC was the match

Looters outside a shopping center alongside a burning barricade in Durban, South Africa on July 12. (Andre Swart/AP)
Looters outside a shopping center alongside a burning barricade in Durban, South Africa on July 12. (Andre Swart/AP)

South Africa is a tinderbox marked by extreme inequality. And last week, the country’s ruling party lit the match.

Anarchic scenes of violence and large-scale looting engulfed the populous provinces of Gauteng, the mining and financial heartland, and KwaZulu-Natal along the east coast. Nine days of mayhem left at least 200 people dead, 40,000 businesses affected, 100 shopping complexes looted, 1,400 ATMs and about 300 banks and post offices vandalized. In KwaZulu-Natal, an estimated 150,000 jobs are at risk with a $1.3 billion impact on the province’s economy.

All this was started at the behest of organized groups, some reportedly with links to the country’s spy agencies, who targeted economic infrastructure, with a well-organized social media campaign. The government, which was shamefully caught off guard, eventually mobilized 25,000 troops to patrol the streets.

Supporters of former president Jacob Zuma triggered this unrest, and the flames were fanned by mass poverty. Zuma, whose administration was marked by a rapid descent into mass corruption and the breakdown of state institutions, refused to appear before a commission of inquiry into graft during his time in office. On the principle that no one is above the law, the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial institution, ordered him to serve a 15-month prison sentence.

Zuma is a member of the country’s former liberation movement, the African National Congress, which has been the ruling party since the advent of democracy in 1994. Paradoxically, the ANC in its current form has become the biggest threat to the future of the republic.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has characterized the unrest as “a failed insurrection” that was “nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy.” What he failed to say is that this “insurrection” emanated from within his party, as a faction stirred the pot by casting doubt on the rule of law.

But — if readers will forgive the phrase — an interesting thing happened on the way to the riot. Millions of South Africans decided they would not be part of it, refusing to become human shields for a faction of the ANC that has lost power.

In the township of my birth, Mamelodi, outside Pretoria, ordinary people organized civilian defense groups to physically stop groups of looters. Scenes such as this were repeated across the country, as looters were bused to different areas and people quickly abandoned hope that the police would do anything to bring things under control. In the end, the looting was confined to two of South Africa’s nine provinces. While citizen action is to be welcomed, the vacuum also spurred the formation of vigilante outfits, which led to racialized killings, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

When a state is unable to guarantee the safety of its citizens, it quickly loses legitimacy. Last week, the ANC may just have precipitated a slide in that direction.

This has been coming for a long time. The ANC has all but lost interest in democratic governance and service delivery. The scale of this criminal neglect has been blasted live into homes for the past three years through television coverage of the Zondo Commission’s inquiry into the allegations of corruption. Meanwhile, the multiracial middle class has outsourced safety and security, health, education and energy to private companies. The vast majority of poor people, who are mainly Black, lack decent basic services and life prospects, and face the grinding consequences of covid-19 and associated lockdowns. Official unemployment stands at 32.6 percent, but if we include those categorized as no longer seeking work, the rate stands at 43.2 percent.

At a less visible level, violent faction fights within the ANC have been going on for some time. Between 2015 and 2020, at least 90 local government politicians and officials were murdered in KwaZulu-Natal alone. Those targeted are often ANC members competing for lucrative positions that have a potential to alter one’s material conditions of existence.

Ramaphosa is hopeful that the failed “insurrection” is his opportunity to rebuild. His opponents have certainly been weakened. The instigators are on the defensive and their call to mobilize public support for Zuma ultimately failed to gain national political traction. But, except for a few bright sparks, the president is surrounded by mind-numbing mediocrity. Any successful rebuilding will depend on Ramaphosa being bold — a quality that has not been in any evidence since he became president in 2018 — and taking on not only his factional opponents, but the massive challenges facing the economy.

I asked an ANC leader whether he expects recent events to lead to a “renewal” of the ruling party, or whether instead this marks its epitaph. “It could go either way,” he replied.

Fortunately, the country can still count on the resilience of its people.

Palesa Morudu Rosenberg is a South African writer based in Washington, D.C.

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