South Africa looks for answers as violence abates

Purpose of protests and looting after Zuma’s arrest unclear as finger points to supporters

With the unrest in South Africa that began after the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma starting to abate, the nation's focus has turned to identifying those who sparked it and what they hoped to achieve.

Former intelligence operatives loyal to Zuma have been among the first people blamed by the government for instigating the violent protests and looting that swept through Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces.

As of Thursday night, at least 117 people had reportedly died and more than 2,000 been arrested during the week of violence. Food shortages have also emerged in some of the affected areas after hundreds of businesses were looted.

Few who have followed the political rise and fall of the 79-year-old Zuma, who was jailed for 15 months on July 7th for ignoring a constitutional court order to appear at an inquiry, were surprised by the allegations that his people were behind the unrest.


In January the same inquiry, which is looking into his involvement in public sector corruption, heard that a unit had been established in the State Security Agency during his 2009-2018 presidency to operate as his private militia and directly serve his interests.

South Africa’s fourth post-apartheid president was also the ANC’s head of intelligence during its fight to overthrow white minority rule, so his political career has been steeped in the shady world of intelligence agencies and counter-insurgency.

Xenophobic attacks

However, South Africa is not unaccustomed to violent unrest on the scale it has just witnessed. In 2008, a series of xenophobic attacks launched across Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal by poverty-stricken rioters left at least 63 dead and they were mostly foreigners.

So are Zuma’s allies solely to blame for this most recent mayhem? Or is the government also responsible, as it has allowed most of its citizens to wallow in the type of poverty that foments such violent behaviour? South Africa is one of the most unequal societies in the world.

The head of the justice and violence programme at South Africa's Institute for Security Studies, Gareth Newham, believes that initially the looting and attacks on businesses were launched by the former president's supporters in areas prone to violence.

“We have been monitoring violence in the country since 2013 and these attacks were well-orchestrated,” he told The Irish Times. “Our sources say Zuma’s people started them, but they seemed to spiral out of control and take on a life of their own after the first days.”

The question of what the instigators of the unrest ultimately wanted to achieve also remains unanswered. Newham said that if their intention was to pressure the authorities to release Zuma from prison, then the tactic was likely to fail.

Goading act

"I don't think it [the violence] will impact on Zuma's chances of getting out of jail. President Cyril Ramaphosa says he believes in the rule of law," said Newham. "Zuma also hasn't applied for a presidential pardon or served half his sentence, so releasing him would trigger a constitutional crisis."

Some political analysts suspect that those behind the unrest had tried – but failed – to goad South Africa’s security forces into over-reacting against the protesters, which could have cost many lives. However, the army and police have been blamed for only one of the deaths reported so far.

If they had been responsible for a large loss of life, then Ramaphosa, who is leading the fight to clean up corruption in the ANC, would likely come under pressure to resign as president.

Mcebisi Ndletyana, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg’s department of politics and international relations, maintains the unrest was also about allies of Zuma in the ANC trying to avoid suffering his fate.

“They have looted with Jacob Zuma and they are now desperately looking for ways to paralyse the legal system so they can avoid prosecution,” he said.

Ndletyana said the crisis could become an opportunity for Ramaphosa, as he now has sufficient evidence there is a clear danger to his government, and broad public support to act decisively against the saboteurs.

“By starting this violence they may well have hammered another nail into their coffins,” he said.