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South Africa’s July riots and the long shadow of Jacob Zuma fall over party and state


Susan Booysen is Director of Research, Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA), and visiting and emeritus professor, Wits School of Governance.

The ANC chokes and South Africa convulses. This reality emerges as the country limps out of the aftermath of the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng riots.

The recent unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng were triggered by the jailing of Jacob Zuma for contempt of court at a time when contempt had become Zuma’s only option besides incriminating himself. Zuma and his followers had implied in the past that all hell would break loose should his prosecution (persecution, as they argue) proceed. Hell, in the frame of destruction and anarchy did break loose, geographically specific and contained in just over a week. In the aftermath South Africa is consumed with picking up the pieces, stitching back together the political, economic and social fabric, and possibly searching for the next rainbow.

This is the long shadow of Jacob Zuma. The effects of the Zuma-linked July 2021 explosion will be felt for a considerable time, both by the ANC and South Africa. It is a tale of knock-on effects when a political party with lingering Struggle legitimacy becomes the de facto one-party hegemon within a multiparty democracy. Party and state fuse. The party’s problems reverberate nationally. This analysis assesses political, economic and social effects that will be part of South Africa’s future.

The ANC is left traumatised and paralysed, even more than before. To prevent the vestiges of the “new dawn against corruption” from tumbling and destroying its remaining public credibility, it has to continue endorsing judicial and prosecutorial action against Zuma – and his implicated associates. Yet, the ANC has now seen the intended and unintended consequences that were unleashed when a malevolent spark, the anger of Zuma and his followers, hits home. 

The credibility of the ANC as governing party has been affected severely. The events of the first two weeks of July were not new – only the grand scale was. The ANC’s wicked factionalism can no longer be argued away as normal party political practice, as ANC politicians like to do. South Africa has seen what can go wrong when factionalism meets the ingrained political culture of protest, direct action that is often associated with looting and limited consequences. The ANC and South Africa have seen the dark side of party fallout meeting inequality: infrastructure burns, strategic economic activity is sabotaged, neighbouring communities’ insecurities and deprivations convert into race-class wars. 

One of the harshest legacies of July 2021 will be the national wake-up to the virtual non-existence of the nation’s security forces. Details of the South African Police Service’s (SAPS) unpreparedness, of being outmanoeuvred, sometimes being complicit and unwilling to maintain law and order, affected perceptions of the SAPS. The South African State Security Agency has become a court jester. Overall, the state was exposed as weak even if government power was not specifically threatened. The question lingers whether the initiators knew that there would be this much operational space for the new scale of lawlessness to flourish after the initial spark.

The measures announced by South Africa’s executive this week demonstrate the long economic impact of the riots. Minister of Finance Tito Mboweni was at pains to emphasise that it was intra-state reprioritisation and recovery of income streams that enabled the measures of roughly R38-billion that were announced. South Africa’s debt ratio would not be affected, he stressed, as he fused Covid-19 recovery and compensatory action for the R50-billion of estimated losses due to damage and destruction.

There was safety in the fusion with Covid-relief. The temporary reintroduction of the Social Relief of Distress Grant was announced. The Unemployment Insurance Fund’s Covid-19 temporary relief was extended with a fund of R5.3-billion. The Department of Employment and Labour is drafting a directive to assist the 75,000 workers who lost their jobs due to the riots but who do not qualify for UIF temporary employer/employee relief scheme. The SOE South African Special Risks Insurance Association (Sasria) will assist insured businesses to recover (through a R4-billion capital injection). There will be additional funds to help the uninsured, especially small businesses.

The long economic shadow of the July riots will reveal itself, in due course. There is no doubt, in the interim, that Ramaphosa’s flagship programme of raising investment, and in particular foreign direct investment, has been attacked – in effect or by design. Sasria measures and the supplementary business recovery measures will help, but as long as the ANC’s internal war, and political culture of protest to supplement elections persist, investment will require blind faith and extreme patriotism.

The fusion of Covid-19 and post-riot recovery helps veil the extent to which the state steps in to help the country recover from ANC-triggered damages. Time will tell whether these massive interventions to help mostly KwaZulu-Natal (suffering about R36-billion of the total national damages of R50-billion) will cause a backlash against the ANC from the provinces that did not erupt. 

These political and economic aftermaths of the top-level politically inspired riots will emerge in future ANC election results. It remains to be seen whether voters will blame the incumbent Ramaphosa ANC for the riots, given the factional fallout. Voters and ANC supporters could very well decide that Ramaphosa had been indecisive and had vacillated in translating his Nasrec victory into a clear way forward for the ANC – and the 2019 election mandate into conclusive government action. ANC internal nuances may not mitigate the verdict.

Voters could also choose to see the July outbreaks as evidence of the gravity of the attack on Ramaphosa and credit him and his faction for not succumbing to the assault – for letting the state emerge visibly weakened but perhaps on a road to recovery. The week’s support measures could be construed as evidence of a resilient government that cares for its citizens and funnels the proceeds of mild economic recovery after the worst of the Covid-19 and riot days to the people.

Voters, however, will also be judging the credibility of the ANC. In previous elections, especially in 2019, the substantial majority vote was for the new, post-corruption ANC. Should the Ramaphosa ANC then be rewarded, in early 2022 local elections or 2024 national and provincial elections, for still fighting this battle? 

Should the ANC get a vote after overseeing a party whose factional actions wreaked unsurpassed financial carnage, even by standards of comparative international rioting? Should the ANC get a vote if seemingly it is not in charge of what happens in the country, when close to a month after the riots it is piecing together the who-did-it puzzle, possibly taking cues from investigative private agencies and journalists or from going on fishing expeditions, seeing what emerges from court cases of those charged on lesser offences? 

The longest point of the Zuma shadow will be the enduring aspersions that the July riots, an ANC occurrence, have cast on the Ramaphosa regime. DM


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  • Miles Japhet says:

    What is also evident is that there seems to be real action to address the underlying issue of a shrinking economy. Purge the cabinet, remove all underperforming cadres in the civil service, scrap BEE and remove all job stifling legislation as a start.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    A purged ANC is unlikely to be able to stop the ship sinking. They have to make a paradigm shift from being a liberation organization to a political party – and abandon the out dated rhetoric, ideologies and labels that belong to more than 50 years ago, so that they can focus on the real challenges in a viable and sustainable way. They cannot even run their own party and face serious financial constraints that will make it difficult for them to function successfully. The State Capture saga will make it much more difficult for them to generate enough funds unless some billionaires are prepared to dig deep into their own pockets. They have been temporarily rescued by the commodities export bonanza which will return to normal once the world economy has replenished diminished stocks. Sooner or later the decline will generate an imperative for major change – South Africans will need to be ready to grab the opportunity to turn things around.

  • Frans Ferreira says:

    It seems that the ANC is unable to figure out who did what. The answer is very easy : the Zulu faction did it. Lets forget the myth that the ANC is a homogeneous group of saints and face the fact that everybody is in it for themselves. Tribalism is rive and must be addressed not to mention cadres. Government must take control of the situation ASAP.

  • Sandra Goldberg says:

    It will be interesting to see what effect this whole disgusting “insurrection” / damage/ rioting has on forthcoming elections. One possibility could be that rather than voting for the opposition parties, the ANC electorate might decide to abstain all together, thereby not allowing that party a majority, leaving the way open for coalitions.

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