ZIYANDA STUURMAN: How the Zuma years, ANC & inequality created the perfect storm


Nothing about the protests, the looting and the violence we’re currently seeing is new.

Decades of crushing inequality, poverty, hunger and unemployment – that have all worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic and the related lockdown periods – seem to be coming to a head right before our eyes. The police have been slow, to the point of lethargy, in their response to this weekend’s protests, riots and violence, and now the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been deployed under Section 201 of the Constitution and Sections 18 and 19 of the Defence Act.

As explained by Darren Olivier, the Director at the African Defence Review, this means that the SANDF soldiers have been deployed in co-operation with the South African Police Service (SAPS), meaning that they are likely to be involved in patrols and roadblocks so that SAPS officers are freed up to attend to anti-riot operations. This is the correct approach to the deployment given that Olivier asserts that, for the most part, the SANDF lacks anti-riot gear and training.

It has been disconcerting to see social media abuzz with videos – many of them old, unverified, not from South Africa and/or decontextualized – which have fanned the flames of violence. This has made it even harder to separate the facts from fantastical fiction, and worse yet, from messages calling for violence in support of former President Jacob Zuma, or vigilantes declaring that they are willing to take up arms to protect their businesses, property and homes.

Unfortunately, none of what we’re seeing is surprising given that so many South Africans are desperate, unemployed and hungry, and the extension of level 4 lockdown by another 14 days – with no mention of the re-introduction of the Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grants – means that they will struggle for longer with no help from government.

We’ve known for years that our high unemployment rates are a significant contributing factor to the high levels of crime and violence in the country, so the moment we had to shut down large parts of the economy and told millions of people to stay at home in order to mount an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we also should have known that without significant spending on emergency and relief measures for the poorest and the hardest hit by the economic slowdown and lockdowns, something akin to what we’re seeing today would happen. This doesn’t mean that this was inevitable; it means that the right spark was enough to catalyse widespread unrest.

I wouldn’t describe Zuma as the right spark, but the political moment that we are in made him exactly that. It would serve us well not to think of his imprisonment and the days leading up to it as the cause of the current chaos. Instead, I think we should recognise the Zuma years as an enormous contributing factor to the situation we find ourselves in.

The protests should be understood as a result of a decade of lost economic growth, increasing inequality, more than a decade of failed service delivery and the erosion of our law enforcement agencies due to political interference. That the pandemic has thrown all of these issues into sharp focus, this is a reminder to us that none of South Africa’s problems are new.

I also think it would serve us well to understand that many of the underlying issues that led to Zuma’s imprisonment are due to one, singular factor: the destructive, never-ending factionalism within the African National Congress (ANC) that consumes so much of our public life. The fact that the ANC never held Zuma accountable for his actions through successive years of state capture brought us to this point. The fact that a political crisis of the party’s own doing saw their former party president – and a former state president – found in contempt of court for refusing to appear before a commission of inquiry that he himself established, brought us to this point. The fact that the SAPS’s crime intelligence infrastructure was captured by Zuma acolytes like Richard Mdluli, who protected the former president and hounded his opponents, is what brought us to this point.

It is bitter irony then that President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that he would be relying on the SAPS’s Crime Intelligence in the government’s response to the chaos of the last 72 hours. Much of the country’s law enforcement is still struggling to recover from the years of state capture, as journalist and author Caryn Dolley recently detailed.

If we had a thriving and growing economy, the violence might not have been as severe as we have seen in a matter of a few short days. If we had a governing party that didn’t settle its political scores in courts after years of shielding corrupt and unscrupulous politicians, it could have been much more difficult for Zuma and his cronies to incite much of this violence in support of him. If we had a police service with a functional crime intelligence unit that could have acted far more pro-actively to prevent this violence, we might not have had to watch Ramaphosa announce the deployment of the military into Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal to assist the police in their work.

We are where we are today because maladministration, corruption and the state’s inability to provide for the poor were dramatically worsened by a deteriorating economy and rising levels of hunger. Yes, there is likely a criminal element to the looting and violence – particularly in terms of the businesses and shopping malls that have been targeted in multiple acts of arson – but the truth is that those criminal elements are taking advantage of the anger of ordinary people who have very little left to lose. While all of this may have started as a protest in support of Zuma, the grievances lie far deeper than just a desire to see Zuma set free.

If we don’t recognise just how much of this violence has deep, complicated roots in multiple social and political issues in our society, we might find ourselves sending out the police and military more often and against more people.

None of our problems are new; they have been more than a decade in the making.

Ziyanda Stuurman is a Masters graduate in Conflict, Security and Development from Sussex University, the author of the book, _Can We Be Safe? The future of policing in South Africa, and is a regular commentator on policing policy and security analysis. You can follow them on Twitter on @ZiyandaS_.

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