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What's behind the rioting that rocked South Africa?

by Kim Harrisberg | @KimHarrisberg | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 July 2021 17:00 GMT

A member of the military walks as he inspects the damage at the looted Jabulani mall as the country deploys army to quell unrest linked to jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, in Soweto, South Africa, July 13, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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Coronavirus has decimated the economy, with the first hard lockdown in 2020 causing 3 million job losses within months

By Kim Harrisberg 

JOHANNESBURG, July 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From factories and malls going up in flames to supermarkets stripped bare by looters, South Africans were shocked this month when the army was used to stem the worst violence in decades.

What exactly sparked the riots and how do government, and regular citizens, hope to build back better in one of the world's most divided and unequal countries?

What triggered the violence?

When former president Jacob Zuma was arrested on 7 July and jailed for refusing to appear at an inquiry into high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018, his supporters took to the streets to demand his release.

The protests quickly evolved into widespread looting as rioters blocked major highways and set fire to chemical plants, farms and food storage facilities. The violence claimed more than 300 lives and billions of rands worth of damage.

President Cyril Ramaphosa called the riots "a failed insurrection" by Zuma supporters, signalling an ongoing political battle within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which took power at the end of apartheid in 1994.

Did coronavirus play a role?

While some looters were filmed driving in expensive cars to raid malls, many said they were poor and jobless. Women, including the elderly, stole food and nappies while children grabbed clothes and shoes.

Coronavirus has decimated the economy, with the first hard lockdown in 2020 causing 3 million job losses within months, with women in the informal sector particularly hard hit.

Almost half of South Africans surveyed by research firm IPSOS last year said their household often went hungry because they did not have enough money to buy food.

And unemployment hit a new record high of 32.6% in the first quarter of 2021, with more than 7 million people unemployed.

Child support grants were topped up during the pandemic, and new relief schemes were introduced but these benefits stopped in April, as the government said it could not afford them.

In June, South Africa went in to a third lockdown, causing massive hardship for poor families who rely on daily wage labour like construction and domestic workers, creating a tinder-box ready to ignite.

Isn't South Africa the richest country in Africa? 

South Africa is a country of paradoxes. It is not uncommon to see a shoeless beggar hold out his hand towards the tinted windows of a Ferrari at the traffic lights.

Rich in diamonds, gold, platinum, copper and coal, South Africa is home to 36,500 dollar millionaires - twice as many as any other country on the continent, according to New World Wealth and AfrAsia Bank.

Meanwhile, more than half of South Africa's 60 million people live in poverty, official statistics show.

This deep inequality stretches back to 17th century colonialism and slavery, followed by 46 years of racially segregated, white minority rule from 1948 to 1994.

Racial tensions remain, with roughly 70% of privately-owned farmland in South Africa owned by whites, who make up less than 9% of the 58 million-strong population.

What happens next? 

Despite the violence and loss of life, many have lauded Zuma's imprisonment as a sign that all are equal before the law.

Ramaphosa announced a crisis relief fund for South Africans whose businesses were looted and asked the public to donate. But some on Twitter decried it as a "relief fund for the looters" or worried it would provide "more for people in govt to steal".

Ramaphosa also said he was considering introducing a basic income grant, which civil society has long lobbied for, and met with 90 business leaders to discuss urgent relief efforts.

The millionaire businessman's wing of the ANC is under pressure from the Zuma faction and the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters, both of which have called for mines and banks to be nationalised and land confiscated without compensation.

Ramaphosa's plan to revive the economy and create jobs by building ports and generating energy has won support, though critics say the ANC must do more to end corruption, unemployment and simmering anger over continued wealth disparities.

Meanwhile, ordinary South Africans have wasted no time responding to the crisis with fundraising networks and street clean ups, and charities have rallied to collect food parcels while lines snaked outside soup kitchens.

Related stories:

Sharp-eyed grandmothers combat looting and crime in South Africa

In South Africa, a zero-waste food bus hopes to drive away hunger

Trash for cash: South Africans fight hunger with digital currency

($1 = 14.5396 rand)

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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