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Echoes of the 80s: How today’s unrest sparked by factional battles can erupt into another civil war

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Nhlanhla Cyril Mbatha holds a PhD in Economics and is the Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Rhodes University. He conducts research on Environmental and Resouces Management (including research on Land Reform Projects across a number of Africa countries), Education and Skills Development, etc. He was the first Director of the Young African Leaders Inititative (YALI) Regional Leadership Centre (RLC) at Unisa's School of Business Leadership, where he was Professor of Economics. His parents come from villages around Pietermarizburg and was born in Durban, but grew up in Katlehong township in the East Rand region of Gauteng.

The social and economic nature of unrest and violence in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng: Is history repeating itself?

While grappling with the global Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa is also going through a sociopolitical and economic nightmare. As President Cyril Ramaphosa’s administration tries to work through Covid-19-related health and economic challenges, it is now being fully confronted by the depth of its own internal factional battles. The imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma has given his allies the go-ahead signal for an all-out attack on their opponents. As promised at Nkandla days before Zuma’s jailing, the country is now experiencing the destruction and looting of business properties at a level last seen, probably, in the late 1980s.

Before the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, South Africa’s economy was already displaying a structural collapse, stemming from the mismanagement, corruption and patronage that Ramaphosa once labelled “the nine wasted years”. The country’s economy was barely recovering from the 2008 global recession, when, from 2011 onwards, most economic indicators began taking a nosedive. Looking at the foreign exchange rate, budget deficit, public debt, employment levels and social inequalities, etc, it is clear the situation has consistently been deteriorating. The pandemic has confronted Ramaphosa’s administration with one of the most complex sociopolitical and economic challenges our country has faced since the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the economy was in recession during a low-level intensity civil war.

It is notable how some of the economic and social features of the country’s problems today are to a degree similar to those experienced in the early 1990s. The political environment, however, is distinctly different. In the early 1990s the socioeconomic disparities were founded on the racially discriminatory laws of a white minority government. Now, there is a democratic government that has been in place for almost 30 years, with a judiciary founded on a rights-based and pro-justice constitution. Nevertheless, sociopolitical unrest is rapidly unfolding. Sparked by political infighting in the ruling ANC and promoted by pro-Zuma supporters, it is fuelled by the bad socioeconomic conditions that have intensified over the past 10 years, and are today further compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown measures to prevent high infection rates. Although, not yet on the scale of the political violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this sociopolitical unrest began in KwaZulu-Natal (then Natal), from which Zuma hails and where he is serving his 15-month sentence for defying the orders of the Constitutional Court. It then spread to Gauteng (Witwatersrand). While the political unrest and violence of the late 1980s and early 1990s was founded on racially discriminatory laws of the time, it took on the face of street battles waged between ANC and IFP supporters. The current political and socioeconomic unrest is (still) confined to battles within the ANC factions and in the streets between predominantly black working-class communities who are looting and destroying mostly private business properties. Other criminal elements have reportedly also joined the looting spree, with reports of some middle-class people – including police officers – caught looting.

In the other seven of the nine provinces, the political and socioeconomic looting and destruction of property has not taken root to the extent it has in KwaZulu-Natal and, to a lesser extent, Gauteng. More community narratives against the looting and the destruction of property are emerging in all the provinces.

In KwaZulu-Natal, these narratives are coming predominantly from non-black communities, in Gauteng and other provinces they are coming from black residents in a number of townships. Black-owned businesses, including the powerful taxi associations, are also joining the calls to stop or prevent the looting and destruction. For now, this unrest is still clearly localised, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng. This is strikingly similar to the pattern of the political violence of the late 1980s and the early 1990s. 

In KwaZulu-Natal, associated with the looting, a racial and violent conflict is also emerging between black and non-black communities, especially in predominantly South African Indian communities of Phoenix, north of Durban. These are the reasons the young King of the Zulu-speaking people of KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere in South Africa has been pleading with his subjects to stop looting and destroying property and to make peace with Indian communities. 

Where to from here?

The immediate economic costs of the looting and destruction of property so far already run into billions of rands. But the socioeconomic and political costs from the unrest and Covid-19 now and in the future may be too high to quantify. 

On 14 July 2021, the eThekwini Economic Development and Planning Committee estimated the following losses: a) more than R1.5-billion of stock losses, b) more than R15-billion of damage to property and equipment, c) more than 50,000 informal trader jobs affected, d) more than 40,000 formal businesses affected, a bigger portion of which may not come back, e) more than 150,000 jobs at risk and close to 1.5 million people at home with no income, f) a loss of R50-billion to the metro’s GDP. These costs are expected to increase as the unrest continues. These may only look like numbers for now, but their traumatic socio-psychological impacts can only breed more social and community violence in the near future and the long term.  

From the repeating patterns of unrest and violence in generally the same geographical locations, it is clear that the affected areas have been trapped for decades in a cycle of socio-psychological trauma. While ignited by political manipulation within the ruling ANC faction battles, the recent events are partly a flare-up of this decades-long traumatic cycle. 

The province of KwaZulu-Natal is at a precipice. The socioeconomic conditions are ripe for the current unrest to develop into another low-intensity civil war, also given the historical memory of collective trauma in the same areas. The current provincial and national leadership (with Mr Ramaphosa at the forefront), like in 1990, is again required to perform miracles. First, the national ANC leadership has to ensure that law and order is restored immediately, at any cost. Second, the ANC leadership has to account honestly and take full responsibility for its role in the current and persistent socioeconomic conditions in the entire country and account for its central role, through factional battles, in creating the socioeconomic and political unrest that has unfolded in the two provinces. 

The ANC and executive government leadership have to ensure, through all legal and intelligence means, that the factional battles and their effects do not spill over to the rest of the country. It should be ironic that the push to root out corruption in the party should now be given a wider political legitimacy (by the unrest) to intensify. The stakes for the current ANC leadership are that high at the moment to rid itself of its rogue elements. Those who lit the spark to set off the unrest and those who supported them, whether actively or indeed passively by doing nothing, have to be identified, exposed and held to public account. Second, in the short term, special attention and effort have to be given to the affected provinces to ensure that communities who have been politically duped into destroying their infrastructure are food-secure to prevent further unrest. 

Without a fully functional private market system in place in the severely affected areas, community forums with trusted members, where they do not yet exist, have to be set up to work alongside trusted government officials and security forces to ensure that those affected by the unrest receive food and medicines while the private market systems are being restored. Third, the government should support affected business owners in rebuilding their business properties, because without the support any economic efforts to support the province would not be sustainable. A socioeconomic task team of business owners, scholars and trusted officials should be set up to analyse the extent of the socio-psychological and economic impacts of the unrest in order to design a strategy supported by both the government and the private sector at a national level to rebuild the wasted infrastructure and re-establish the province’s economy.            

At a social level, it is encouraging that communities now see clearly the interconnectedness of their social and economic ecosystems and are forming forums to prevent further damage. That the unrest did not spread to other provinces is a positive signal for affected communities to self-identify and realise that they could have done better. Also encouraging is that unlike in the 1980s and the early 1990s, the unrest has not yet taken a violent turn and there are no battles across political party lines. 

The majority of the Zulu people, especially in rural areas, are normally traditionalists and are respectful of their traditional leadership. This means that the calls coming from the King (even though he is still new in the position) and the more experienced traditional prime minister to refrain from further looting and destruction of property, are likely to gain traction if they are repeated frequently enough going forward. Nevertheless, the situation remains tense. There are many variables at play, some unknown or not clearly understood, which make future developments hard to predict. The situation may remain challenging to bring under control, at least for a little while. DM

Professor Cyril Nhlanhla Mbatha, Director of the Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) at Rhodes University.

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All Comments 5

  • I do hope that our Deputy President, Mr David Mabuza, is getting the best possible medical treatment in Russia. I do wonder if there is any coincidence in the timing of his medical trip. I am sure that my fellow South Africans wish him a speedy recovery, as we are probably picking up the tab for, what must be, an incredibly complicated medical issue that can’t be dealt with by our own, highly competent, medical practitioners.

  • An excellent article. The ANC has to have the courage to join hands in a Government of National Unity to pivot to market friendly economic policy reform,whilst getting World bank/other assistance to extend the basic income grant. At the same time the GNU should embark upon a massive increase in the size of the Extended Public Works programme to deal with the short to medium terms issues whilst the economy kicks in to gear.

  • The instigators of this looting and larceny found fertile ground in the Zulu youth, the older generation may respect and comply with their King’s plea to not become involved and not become involved. Regrettably there is a generation at play who were not exposed to the traditions of past generations, failed by both their parents, who did not instill the old Zulu principles and traditions in their children, and the Government which has failed miserably to take into account the plight of the youth, poor education, lack of opportunities in the economy, with no political resolution in sight. The older generation will take note and comply with their King’s call to stop the looting and not get involved, but the youth do not seem as committed to the Zulu monarchy but more committed to appeasing their own selfish wants and needs, even if it means using the racist card at every opportunity.