At the core of South Africa’s July uprising was the political spark of “Free Zuma”. It has been taking shape since the pre-Polokwane times when former president Jacob Zuma and his cohort planned and executed the takeover of ANC and South African state power. A few years of rule by President Cyril Ramaphosa have not defused this political catalyst.
The political-cum-socioeconomic uprising was enabled by the weakness of the South African state. The feeble state then interfaced with a long-standing popular culture of lawlessness and the ANC government’s practice of “soft law” against citizens and factions. Soft law refers to the ANC’s reluctance to act against citizens breaking the law for fear of this causing alienation and lack of electoral support.
This analysis explores these building blocks that helped build the facilitative context for the uprising to take place. It asks whether both the spark and the contributing factors are likely to persist or disappear.
The weaknesses of the South African state are at the core of the problem of having enabled the events of chaos and anarchy that engulfed much of KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. There are indications that dark forces within the state security apparatuses, with links to the dark side of civil society, have been masterminds. These forces, constituting parallel structures and processes, were identified in the 2018 Report of the High-Level Review Panel on the State Security Agency into the malfunctioning of the State Security Agency (SSA), soon after Ramaphosa came to power. Security experts reported this week that to this day nothing significant has been done to clean up the deep network of illegal intelligence operations that served, or still serve, Zuma.
The week’s government security pronouncements demonstrated the fragility of available state intelligence operations. The week’s briefings represented the insights from the NatJoints structure that brings together intelligence by the police Crime Intelligence, military intelligence and the SSA. Despite assurances that much had been thwarted, this Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster instilled little confidence. Beyond these structures, the deputy minister of intelligence reported that from interacting with communities at the sites of ravaged shopping malls he had learnt about the causes, unearthing details the security services had not been privy to!
The minister of defence on Monday authorised the deployment of 2,000 troops to support the police in securing infrastructure and did not want to deploy larger numbers “for the sake of deploying”. By late Wednesday, the optimal number was raised to 25,000…. Also bear in mind that citizens know from experience that the military comes scarred, its reputation dented by the early Covid-19 deployment casualties.
The South Africa Police Service (SAPS), in the words of the minister of police, is not trained to handle an uprising (they only handle policing, he says). This was clear amid images of the police being spectators as shopping malls were looted (more than 200, it is estimated) and often torched. There was a flood of statistics on the number of arrests. Yet, from experience, we know that a fraction of these cases will be prosecuted, and those numbers are most likely to fizzle out too, a phenomenon that I write about in my book, Precarious Power.
The SAPS is also scarred both by the Marikana and Wits student shooting cases. Its licence to use force is curtailed – rightly so, yet with implications for law enforcement. Its social legitimacy as a community-friendly force and its responsibility to ensure safety and security fight each other. Law-breaking citizens exploit this.
Ramaphosa in his address early this week did not build confidence in state and government being in charge of the crisis either. Ramaphosa was a touch more assertive than in his usual speeches to the nation, but concurrent images of continuous looting mirrored his address. There was a sense of the president being out of touch, besides being out of control. Overall, this reflected a weak state – and the scene is set for diluted state authority.
The potential for uprisings to take hold, however, does not simply come from openings at the top. South Africa has a long-established culture of protest that is tolerated and co-exists with electoral support for the ANC. A part of this culture is that there will be limited consequences in the case of protests that go beyond merely the constitutional right to protest.
The established culture of torching and looting of trucks on South Africa’s major transport corridors is one example. Food-bearing delivery trucks have long been looted, with gay abandon. There have been limited consequences. The study of protest over time, as I elaborate in Precarious Power, shows how the soft practice of a handful of arrests, followed by a few prosecutions, then culminates in a small number of drawn-out court appearances. This de facto culture of no consequences, especially in the face of crimes of poverty, is a pre-eminent part of South Africa political culture – and it facilitates the uptake of looting protests. The brazen looting of July 2021 has been building on this base.
As in the case of the surges in xenophobic violence, especially since 2008, there are additional mediating factors. They include being in the influence sphere of hostel areas and some of their associated taxi networks… or, in the often interrelated social media networks. Comparable networks had a role in the 2018 Mooi River xenophobic truck attacks.
The fact that the revolt has roots in pro-Zuma mobilisation means that the ANC stands vulnerable to being accused of “purging”, which may lead to the alienation of many of isiZulu origins and ANC declines in provincial and national standings. This means that the ANC cannot freely act against possible perpetrators, and these persons know this. About 20% of the ANC’s membership base comes from this province – and that ANC provincial power had peaked when Zuma became the face of the ANC.
Civil society pushback and counter-looting mobilisation is taking shape, and could help to quell the current uprising. It could strengthen the ANC’s hand. However, successful community action could also dilute ANC government power and public image: these forces acted where the state failed.
A test of the state’s authority will come in the form of the Constitutional Court ruling (judgment is reserved at this stage) on whether its preceding judgment to imprison Zuma for his contempt of court following his repeated acts of contempt of the Zondo Commission of Inquiry will be rescinded. Victory for Zuma’s application will show weakness of the Constitutional Court as the apex court. Inversely, the Constitutional Court upholding its previous incarceration judgment may strain the state apparatuses to a renewed breaking point.
If that hurdle is passed, the ball will be back in the ANC’s court. It may signal that it is time to try to invent a strong state, in the interest of South Africa generally. That would require cutting the costs that come with maintaining unity with the Zumaist shadow state within the state. The July uprising highlighted, with grim consequences, the cost of trying to retain ANC unity above all.
Several of the factors that enable and facilitate uprisings will remain, but one of the core triggers will be defused. DM