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SA in flames: spontaneous outbreak or insurrection?

The organisers need to be brought to book.
Demonstrators loot stores as protests continued on July 12. Image: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

South Africans spent most of mid-July glued to their news outlets, from established media outlets to TikTok, from streaming news to old-fashioned printed words, to see just one thing: would Jacob Zuma blink? Would the country finally get some taste of revenge for the state capture, looting, destruction of institutions and threats to the country’s democracy their former president had enabled and championed? Would the rule of law win?

Zuma blinked, with a few minutes to spare, and handed himself over to police. An hour or so later he was booked into a rather comfy looking “state of the art correctional facility” in Estcourt (which had taken 17 years to refurbish).

The rule of law won. The institutions that had been so assiduously hollowed out under the nine years of his presidency had flexed their new-found muscle. The Constitutional Court had long held firm, the police were rather more wobbly, but despite much assegai-rattling by family members and the Zuma Foundation, into prison he went. No ANC leader expressed joy, only sorrow that the man had fallen so low; for people not in such elevated positions, it was a rare moment of jubilation in the midst of a global pandemic that has us locked down, again.

Protests that had been low key since he was arrested on Wednesday night exploded into an orgy of looting, marching, xenophobic attacks, arson, truck-burning, stabbing and shooting, and blockading of roads and freeways (among others) by Sunday.

It seemed – and Zuma’s allies and (adult) children were quick to preach the word – that he was so popular and such an object of sympathy that a spontaneous outbreak of bloody violence and theft was unavoidable, and a dark portent if Zuma was not immediately released. Prescience seemed to have replaced profligacy.

The stakes were (and remain) exceptionally high. Thanks in part to the commission of inquiry into state capture and corruption Zuma had both established and later refused to attend, Zuma is now known to have allowed the Gupta family, using organised crime money-laundering vehicles, to bankrupt the state. As has been noted, fish rot from the head. From the time that he was fired by former president Thabo Mbeki (in 2005) to date, Zuma has deployed his infamous Stalingrad legal strategy. In effect, he has been fighting every single item in court while adopting the victim stance of a man more sinned against than sinning.

Sadly, Zuma is not a Shakespearian hero, but a man of decidedly clay feet.

For nine years as president, he outmanoeuvred pretty much all and sundry – he reshuffled cabinets to destabilise opponents; he forced the Whip and faced down multiple votes of no confidence; he allowed R50 billion to be stolen by his friends, the Gupta family – all now safely in Dubai – and ran state and party as both cash cow and defensive wall.

He met his match in Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, who succeeded him as ANC and national president. Ramaphosa has moved with the cold, calculating methodology that proves him to be the real chess master (Zuma has a passion for the game). Ramaphosa has outmanoeuvred Zuma and many of his allies in the ANC (such as secretary general Ace Magashule). He has done this by trying to resuscitate the organs of state, investigation and prosecution that had been severely damaged by his predecessor.

The rule of law – which took a pummelling over the last decade – seems to be out of rehab. Zuma may only be in prison for a contempt charge – but the notion that the first ANC leader in orange overall would be Zuma was not a fantasy that played out as realistic in most imaginations.

Why the violence

Many reasons have been offered for the violence, looting, racist bile and bloodshed that erupted. These include:

  • the pent-up frustration of hungry and cold people facing few prospects for socio-economic improvement;
  • inequality and the gulf between the conspicuous consumption of the “made it” compared to others;
  • ethnic tensions within the ANC, with the president representing a “minority” tribe and apparently lacking legitimacy;
  • good old stereotypical Zulu nationalist violence was breaking out as it did in the early 1990s;
  • internal ANC factional tensions were spilling onto the streets; and more.

All of these have some truth. Yet none provides a narrative thread that ties together these disparate issues and scattered but clearly organised acts of violence. Part of the gap in our understanding is how a middle-of-the-night incarceration for Zuma – albeit done in the blaze of TV arc lights – led to such a widespread and destructive but apparently spontaneous outbreak.

This narrative suits Zuma and his supporters perfectly: pity for the victimised former president unleashed patriotic fervour that was unstoppable, proving his popularity and victim status. Family, the Zuma Foundation and others all began pumping out the narrative – much as Zuma’s daughter tweeted the video of a gun firing bullets into a poster of Ramaphosa. Subtlety did not play much of a role.

But when the Minister of State Security reported on the morning of Tuesday 13 July that her spies had managed to stop attacks on substations, planned attacks on ANC offices and in Durban-Westville prison, things began to look different. How did they know of the plans, and for how long? Who was doing the planning? How did they stop it?

When “impeccable sources in the intelligence service and law enforcement” warned of arms caches at Zuma’s home, Nkandla; when we recall that the police admitted to “losing” some 20,000 weapons in the 2000s, as had the State Security Agency, we are permitted to ask uncomfortable questions.

Suddenly the acts look rather more organised and rather less spontaneous.

Neeshan Balton, executive director of the not-for-profit lobby group, the Kathrada Foundation, has suggested that part of the strategy was a wildfire – strike lots of matches and just let them burn whatever is in their path to destabilise the democratic project.

This too is premised on the existence of a plan.

The danger with suggesting that this was not at heart a set of random acts by poor people who were overcome by emotion at the thought of Zuma in prison but rather a (more or less well) planned and executed attempt to destabilise the state is that rather than “joining the dots” as Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan advised, one may be constructing a crazy conspiracy theory.

The definition of insurrection is to rise against the power of the state, generally using weaponry. Conspiracies exist. From dark warnings of another massacre like the one at Marikana in 2012 should Zuma be touched, to planning sabotage against municipal infrastructure, and fanning the flames of xenophobic violence, it seems very difficult to ignore the planned insurrection at hand.

Poor and hungry people exist, and the state should be ashamed. But hungry people do not become violent looters on behalf of better-known looters who are in jail. They may well be available for mobilisation (looting, violence, marching) behind the organisers – but it is the organisers that need to be brought to book, and who must also face the rule of law.

Corruption thrives in a destabilised state with weak institutions. South Africa cannot be allowed back to that space because there will be no turning back.The Conversation

David Everatt, Professor of Urban Governance, University of the Witwatersrand

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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It’s high time for the ANC to split into those who want to build and preserve and those who want to loot and destroy.

Stand up and be counted, then we can realign the politics of this country and get on with the builders.

You think people will vote for the destroyers, I think not

The problem is not the ANC-they won free and fair elections -repeatedly. The problem lies fairly and squarely with the voters who re-elected them. Democracy brings accountability

We have a lot of people who will keep on voting for the ANC because the ANC did this and that for them. The poor and unemployed only care about what they stand to gain and what the ruling party can do for “poor” which is the majority in the country. For this reason they will keep voting for the ANC.

The educated has now realised ANC is lacking skills and capacity to lead the nation but they ask, “which other party we can vote for?”. Note that DA is not an option for most SAns. EFF seems gangster also so most choose to not vote.

ANC is still going to win the next election. Its Sad

Correct. The problem is with the voters. And it is not too difficult to work our. It comes down to Race politics.

Black voters are by far the majority…. And in South Africa, whites vote for whites (DA) and blacks vote for blacks (This being the corrupt ANC because there is a vacuum in functional black leadership in this country and there really is no other choice).

It has become abundantly clear over the last 25 years of democracy( as this is what is happening right now) that black voters would rather see the country devastated by their own people than ever share power with a “white” party .

@that_darn_cat I agree the problem is we vote by colour the skin. Trust me many black people think that if a predominantly white party like DA wins we are going back to apartheid. People are fearful. How can we overcome this? I think we need leaders to unit all races.

Indeed. Observe and keep in mind that the electorate elects only the party, nothing more than that. Absolutely nothing.
It’s the winning party that is responsible for appointing the rulers of the country.

To win elections does not mean that you are qualified to run a country successfully.
Your argument is disproved by the wanton anarchy and looting.
The blame for the destruction,lawlessness and insurrection lies squarely at the feet of the ANC since 1994.

If the ANC were to split now, I think we’d be facing serious stability issues as a country. This will weaken the ANC vote and strengthen smaller, more extreme parties like the EFF.

I don’t think this would be a good idea right now. I have little problem with the current ANC and president.

You don’t have serious instability issues already?! Looks like an ANC split should happen sooner rather than later so everyone can get on with their lives.

Which ANC are you happy with?
WMC faction, Ramaphosa faction, Pedi faction (aka EFF), Western Cape faction (gangsters and druglords), Free state faction (tenderpreneurs and thieves), Eastern Cape faction (Xhosa Nostra), Alex faction (Mafia and crooks), Unemployed faction (15 million of them), or some other group of fools?

Excuse my ignorance here, but surely if the stolen R50B is located in Dubai, then there is some recourse to get the money back? Would the UAE knowingly facilitate corruption/fraud?


There is zero police or army presence at the scenes of the looting.

The only conclusion is that the government endorses the looting and wants it to continue

Time for the communist elements of the ANC to form their own party.

Time for the ANC to be swept asside.

The ANC is the nation’s biggest risk element. Full of corruption, mismanagement and Factionalism and failure.

Why should the “67 Minutes for Mandela” activists currently running the street fear imprisonment if they see that their leaders are walking free when it is common knowledge that they are actual the root of the problem???

absolutely agree!
absolutely agree!
absolutely agree!

South Africa will survive, just more people will be joining Mr. Zuma in jail.

South Africa has a majority of very good/resourceful/smart/strong people.

I hope you bought some resource shares or gold though.

Seems time for the Cape Province to secede. There is no benefit belonging to the current status.

I personally think SA should be broken up (…. as a side note…. the ANC is crumbling internally anyway )

Those that want to be productive must move to an area / province that wants to be productive….

Those that want violence must choose a province and burnt it to the ground (KZN is there) …. and until they happy (together with Duduzane Zuma and gang) … they can then start rebuilding it… (with the Zuma/Guptas captured from the state.

…. rebuild it with the Zuma/Gupta loot captured from the state … then they can be totally free to do what they want

When the law throws owners of propery under the bus by protecting the lives of criminals against lawful defence, that law unintentionally sentences one million innocent people to death for every criminal they save.

The implosion of law and order delivers famine. When the law defends plunder and punishes appropriate defence of life and property, the law itself becomes a vehicle of mass suffering and harship.

These riots were enabled by the Marikana Commission when they banned the police from doing their jobs. There is no difference between a police officer and a Pastor now.

Poignant description but true

Hope you watch “Expect this pattern to be repeated until it sweeps the ANC out of power” – Frans Cronje

Thanks for the link and your comment.

Instead of being rendered into a charming cultural activity, African tribalism has been promoted by the Constitution and harnessed by the ruling party. Making Zuma the President was very smart. The increasingly proud Zulu nation was happy to feel that they were in charge of SA. The Zulu royalty was also the chief of the traditional leaders and things could not be better. The scurrilous entirety of the ruling party continued to abuse the mechanism of proportional representation and made hay under Zuma. The last faction to complain about anything was always going to be the Zulu camp. And then they tried to make a scapegoat out of him with their very own political Commission.
This newcomer nation to Democracy remains as far from what it could and should be as ever and moving even further away every day.

Two weeks ago I said:

the perfect storm is already on us:

1. eskom
2. corruption
3. covid-19++
4. unemployment

the civil-unrest if zuma goes to jail, could ignite this.

now imagine a natural disaster, covid exploding,
civil-unrest matures into a civil war …?

Every piece of property in the country serves as some form of collateral in the banking system. Business owners get operational finance backed by the value of their shops and offices. When a property is set alight by anarchists, they are in fact starting a small fire under the banking system itself.

When we see widespread and orchestrated looting and destruction like this, it is tantamount to an incendiary bomb being dropped on the SARB. Even if insurance companies carry the cost, that money must come from somewhere. Assets have to be liquidated by insurance companies to finance reconstruction. Those assets serve as collateral to the banking system in some way or another. Economic sabotage inevitably spills over to the purchasing power of the currency.

In effect, the people are plundering the value of their own social grants. Business owners are insured, but the purchasing power of the social grant is uninsured.

@ moreis2 nogndag2
Add to your list:
5.The Firearms Control Amendment Bill! (try – now extended to end July 2021.
Hope you all realise that if passed we will be sitting ducks for genocide.
We as readers are such a minority. Lets hope the wheels of change come soon in RSA.

To the Journo, thought provoking article, thank you. However a question.

As of the last few years what I am noticing is that not such very smart but evil people are continuously able to disrupt, bypass and sometimes destroy complex as well as tried and tested governance and systems. It seems that these types that are willing to take the risk seem to be getting a favorable bounce from the ball always. What is the main cause of this, have we made systems to complex or soft touch or is it because of a change in mentality. The standard default is to blame the rise of social media for this.

This is going on globally but this current matter is a good example just look the way of Zuma and his son. These two have been in and out of court for the last decade and more but seem to thrive in the judicial system and with public opinion. To me it is very obvious what their intentions are but to a lot of others they seem to their heroes.

ANC government’s poor handling of the Covid lock down ( which created even more job losses and frustration ) can also be added to the 5 pointers?

If the establishment can prosecute a white man racist’s outburst on a beach in Greece, then surely going after the instigators of this tragedy are a fait accompli.

If they cannot prosecute the present perpetrators, ten clearly all will know cases are cherrypicked , the book for the for the rest, and nothing for the politically UN-elite

Voter education – for hundreds of years black people had no experience of democracy, elections and voting – and that is how the liberation parties in Southern Africa intends to keep it. Look at the voting patterns.

The ANC has denied voter education to the people – and the voters have accordingly failed to hold the politicians accountable.

Since the start of Zuma’s demise from about 2016, there is a pattern in this country:

Trains, trucks and libraries were set alight, mostly around 1H00 in the morning.

Make a list of the intelligence operatives that worked for the State Security department during that time. I suspect they are to blame.

The current situation is only a repeat of what has happened over and over in the past. A section of the population without any self-respect, without any morals or a own value system. A crowd that uses any political opportunity as an excuse and motivation to loot, burn, destroy and kill.

It is not really about Zoo-ma or for Zoo-ma. This rotten group will always be prone to anarchy. It just is what it is.

They can do this because they get away with this over and over again under the false banner of democratic demonstration. They do not fear or respect the rule of law because they get away with their criminal actions over and over again. And this is only possible because of an ineffective, under-resourced police force and a government that tolerate the thugs of anarchy. See it for what it is.

“We have a lot of people who will keep on voting for the ANC because the ANC did this and that for them”. Behind the scene – the tribal system will INSTRUCT the majority voter what to vote by way of their king/ induna/ village chief/ whatever. These snake heads get a monthly bribe called a traditional leader allowance, like SASSA on steroids. We are indeed F-ed, cry the beloved country. Democracy and Africa shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence.

Charming…They were doing (or are doing) rheotoric,fake news,xenophobia,looting,abuse,state capture,corruption,misinformation…now they doing suicide.
Good ridddance to a failed country.
The enemy was and is apartheid.

Just think about it: A disgraceful person who could not run a fish and chips shop was President of this country for 9 years. There must be ramifications!!

It must be remembered that the first thing, amongst many, that the ANC Government destroyed was the education system. What we see today is not the conduct of an educated society.

“Poor and hungry people exist, and the state should be ashamed. But hungry people do not become violent looters on behalf of better-known looters who are in jail.”

Watching the videos of looters, I wondered at the dire need of a lounge recliner, a large plasma screen TV and crates and crates of alcohol.

End of comments.





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