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Contrary to what we are hearing in the news, the violence and looting go beyond the #FreeJacobZuma campaign. This is not to deny that the violence was instigated, and that the campaign was a catalyst, but it is definitely not the cause of the level of violence displayed. We have grown to live with violence in South Africa, from the high levels of gender-based violence to the constant xenophobic attacks and the daily violence to which anyone living in the country can attest.

The question is, what is different about the current violence and why has it spread to affluent neighbourhoods that were previously untouched? In upmarket areas, shopping malls were one of the targets for looting, places even the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema, could not always get his supporters to storm during his campaign against White monopoly. One could say that the ANC faction that supports the #FreeJacobZuma campaign is behind the more targeted approach which is similar to the tactics used prior to 1994, while others might argue that it is due to the high levels of unemployment, the inequality, the strained the economy, and the COVID restrictions that have exacerbated poverty. I would argue it is both.

While the #FreeJacobZuma campaign is the catalyst, the underlying reason is one that the country has not dealt with in its 27 years of democracy: the failure of the African National Congress to take responsibility for the past pain and trauma that the citizens have experienced, and to create an economy that delivers on the promise of equitable economic sovereignty for all South Africans. In 2019, the World Bank recognised South Africa as the most unequal country in the world; the top ten per cent earn sixty to sixty-five per cent of all income. While this does not excuse the violence, it speaks of a citizenry that carries its past traumas and can be galvanised to destroy.

Eusebius McKaiser, a political analyst, speaks of citizens who do not feel that they have a stake in their democracy, who do not see their individual agency and their opportunity for self-actualisation and therefore have nothing to lose.

Protests are not new to the South Africa landscape. South Africa has been described as the protest capital of the world, with 910 protests across the country since the beginning of the lockdown in March 2020. These protests are mainly service delivery-related (water, sanitation and electricity) and they usually turn violent. According to the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), out of 585 cases of public protest between January 2013 and April 2021, 65 per cent turned violent. These protests cost the government billions of rands in damage, something South Africa cannot afford. Many groups that may not have political and economic power have used protests to hold the government to account, to which the government responds positively, thus perpetuating the cycle of protests. While the global black lives matter protests were mainly peaceful and the demands clear, with the recent protests in South Africa there was none of the usual signage, and nor were there any demands or a march to the constitutional court or any such office. Instead, there were photos of looters carrying 58-inch televisions, groceries and fridges. This might be confusing for an outsider who may not discern what the real issue is. It is one of security, failed leadership, inequality and a history of violence.

Many groups that may not have political and economic power have used protests to hold the government to account.

In Durban, many citizens reported that there was no visible police presence during the protests, that looters had the time to pack their goods with little interference. Civilians took charge, while others protected their neighbourhoods. By Monday the 12th of July, following an address by the president, a decision was made to deploy the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to restore order. But even with the presence of the army, warehouses were still being set alight. The estimated damage to the Kwa-Zulu Natal Province  from the torching of trucks, infrastructure damage and looting stood at R100,000 million.

In a turn of events, civilians, taxi associations, informal traders, churches and community leaders came together in Tshwane to denounce the looting, while others in Thembisa and Soweto created a human shield at the local mall. In Diepkloof in Johannesburg, community members came out to clean their area after looting took place. In Kwa Zulu-Natal, minibus taxis volunteered to transport communities to malls, industries, and warehouses to carry out clean-up operations and committed to putting an end to the destruction. While all this indicates community resistance, there is still a security risk because looters have for the first time since the advent of democracy entered areas they had never entered before; while in the past looting and violence were limited to townships, the current protests have been taken to the suburbs and the country’s economic hubs.

SAPREF, South Africa’s largest crude oil refinery, closed on the 14th of July due to the civil unrest. With the country’s value chain disrupted, it is now battling with fuel shortages and food insecurity and the COVID-19 vaccine drive has been disrupted as medical sites are looted. The newly formed political part, ActionSA is now planning to take the government and the ANC to court over the violence and looting. The Democratic Alliance (DA) party is planning to lay incitement charges against Malema and Zuma’s children whom it accuses of inciting the violence.

While in the past looting and violence were limited to townships, the current protests have been taken to the suburbs and the country’s economic hubs.

The many years of corruption, tenderpreneurship and the inability of the government to implement its policies have not helped the situation. While the current president has tried to act on corruption in the country and within his party, there is constant push back from those within his party, most recently from his former General Secretary, Ace Magashule, who is appealing his suspension.

The irony of the protests is that former President Jacob Zuma was facing corruption charges and was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, yet the link between corruption and inequality is not made by the most vulnerable in society, those whom it affects the most.

Therefore, we can only conclude that although the protests were triggered by the former president’s sentencing, the violence has been fuelled by deep-rooted inequality, poverty, unemployment, trauma and a history of violence that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency as the country rebuilds.