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Violent protests draw global attention to inequalities in South Africa

August 16, 2021
tags:#South Africa, #apartheid, #corruption, #racism, #poverty
located:South Africa
by:Cyril Zenda
In the aftermath of violent protests and massive looting that rocked South Africa in early July, analysts trace the roots of the unrest to growing socio-economic inequalities and injustice in this 'Rainbow Nation'.

On 29 June, the Constitutional Court in South Africa sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to a 15-month jail term for his refusal to appear before a state-sanctioned commission of enquiry into alleged corruption during his term that ran from 2009-2018. 

After more than a week of standoff between the police and Zuma’s die-hard supporters, the former leader checked into prison to start serving the contested jail term. 

What then began as angry protests among Zuma’s supporters in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal quickly exploded into a festival of violence and indiscriminate looting that soon spread to other parts of the country, including to South Africa’s economic heartland, Gauteng Province.

After a week of mayhem, in which even some rogue police officers participated, the country was counting the cost of proving that Zuma was not above the law: more than 200 lives had been lost, hundreds of citizens hospitalised, over 2500 arrests made and more than 200 gigantic shopping malls looted empty and or burnt, while infrastructure worth billions of dollars was destroyed. 

It was an orgy of violence the level of which had not been seen since the end of Apartheid nearly three decades ago, leaving the leadership of Sub-Saharan Africa’s most developed economy searching for answers.

“White Monopoly Capital”

Throughout the years during which the alleged “State Capture” corruption saga played out (a scandal that has in fact cut Zuma’s presidency short by a year), the former president used to angrily dismiss charges against him as the political machinations of “White Monopoly Capital”, a putative elitist and powerful political force that he alleges was unnerved by his government’s pro-poor policies. 

It therefore did not come as a surprise that Zuma - a firebrand former freedom fighter who shared prison cells with Nelson Mandela at the notorious Robben Island during the protracted fight against Apartheid - refused to present himself before the commission, repeatedly highlighting his preference for returning to jail than to dignify what he regards as a conspiracy for perpetuation of White rule by other means. 

He has always maintained that he is a victim of political persecution by these underhand White forces opposed to the total dismantling of the Apartheid infrastructure that continue to disadvantage the Black majority of South Africa. 

With conspiracy theories abounding, invidious comparisons were drawn between the treatment that Zuma received from the courts (a jail term) to that some former white Apartheid-era leaders got away with (light fines) for similar offences. This was taken to be confirmation that the judiciary was biased against Zuma. The #FreeZuma campaign soon gained traction, and in no time the country had been engulfed in a huge flame of violence.

A Search For Answers

Throughout the mayhem, church leaders in the country pleaded for a return to peace, but not without pointing to the root cause of this pent-up anger that had suddenly erupted: growing poverty and inequality. 

“It is said that there is a mastermind behind [the violence],” Trevor Itumeleng Molefe, a South African church pastor, told FairPlanet in an interview. “However, he couldn’t have been able to persuade the whole township to loot.”

As someone who is always on the ground, Molefe - who heads the Mercy Seat Family Fellowship in Villa Lisa, a township in the Boksburg area of Gauteng - blamed the unforgiving socio-economic conditions obtaining in the country for the outbreak of violence. 

“People lost their jobs, took salary cuts, had to shut down small businesses and are locked-down [and] expected to stay home and watch the news depressing them even more,” said Molefe. “People are hungry. [The violence and looting] started in KwaZulu-Natal and others saw an opportunity to get something to eat.”

Overgrown Dry Grass of Poverty

Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) also concurred that conditions of abject poverty in the country made ideal conditions for “the wildfire of violence and looting.”

“What started off as difference of opinion has sparked off a wildfire of violence and looting because the ‘dry grass’ of poverty has been left to ‘overgrow’ over decades,” Bishop Sipuka said in a statement. “A big contributing factor to this ‘dry grass’ of poverty is the lack of efficient leadership in government and unethical practices in business.”

A Culture of Violence

For Lindy Heinecken, the chair of the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at South Africa’s Stellenbosch University, a culture of violence is entrenched in South African society, and arises from its complex history. 

The Global Peace Index has consistently listed South Africa as one of the most violent and dangerous places in the world. According to Heinecken, it was not surprising that violence quickly gripped the country, as South Africa is a society that has all the three forms of violence - direct, structural and cultural - fully developed.

“Underlying direct violence is structural violence entrenched in unequal power relations embedded within society,” Heinecken explained. “Structural violence is defined as social and personal violence arising from unjust, repressive and oppressive political, economic and social structures that affect people’s chances in life. These structures control access to quality education, employment and health care. They affect the basic human needs of survival and welfare.”

The sociologist said this indirect, silent violence affects more people than direct violence as it erodes one’s ability to gain access to goods and services necessary for survival through legitimate means. “It is this social and economic inequality that fuels violent crime and protest in the country.” 

Enduring Legacy of Apartheid

Centuries of ruthless exploitation under colonialism, which was later iced with Apartheid, kept black South Africans under white subjugation, laying the basis for the glaring socio-economic inequalities that have endured to this day. This legacy of Apartheid, together with the supposed ‘White Monopoly Capital’, is blamed for the inequalities and injustices prevalent in the country.

In 2018, the World Bank listed South Africa as the most unequal country in the world, meaning that Africa’s most advanced economy does not equally benefit all of its citizens. In the poor areas where the riots occurred, looters stole food, electronics, liquor and clothing from malls. The unemployment rate in South Africa is 32 percent, and more than half of the country’s population of nearly 60 million lives in grinding poverty. 

Even though South Africa accounts for the largest number of millionaires and billionaires of any nation in Sub Saharan Africa, the World Bank report showed that the richest 20 percent of people in South Africa control almost 70 percent of the country’s resources. 

As a legacy of Apartheid, race has always played a bigger role in these inequalities. Although whites make up just a small minority, they control a preponderating share of the most productive farmland in the country - a historical injustice that has always been regarded as a ticking time bomb.

Effects of Violence endure And expand

Economists say that the impact of this unrest would be felt for a long time to come and far afield. While the cost of the violence and looting are still being calculated, ballpark statistics put job losses in KwaZulu-Natal province alone at 150,000 and over $1 billion in damages and looted stock.

With South African anchoring most Sub-Saharan African economies, anything that happens to its economy would have a ripple effect on the entire region. 

Image: Pawel Janiak

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
South Africa
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The sentencing of South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma to 15-months in prison over corruption charges had set off a wave of violent protests across the country.
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A street in Durban, SA strewn with dirt on 14 July, 2021 after days of looting.
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“What started off as difference of opinion has sparked off a wildfire of violence and looting because the ‘dry grass’ of poverty has been left to ‘overgrow’ over decades.” Bishop Sithembele Sipuka
© MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images
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The Global Peace Index has consistently listed South Africa as one of the most violent and dangerous places in the world.
© LUCA SOLA/AFP via Getty Images
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