Looters outside a shopping centre alongside a burning barricade in Durban, South Africa

South Africa’s democracy is ‘standing firm’ despite civil unrest, says analyst

William Gumede, the executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation in South Africa, discusses the recent civil unrest in South Africa with The World’s host Marco Werman.

The World

Looters outside a shopping centre alongside a burning barricade in Durban, South Africa, July 12, 2021.

Andre Swart/AP

Dozens of people have died in chaotic stampedes as South Africa deals with some of the worst unrest the country has seen in years.

Looters ransacked shopping malls in two provinces, stealing food, liquor and clothing. Police and the military fired stun grenades and rubber bullets at the rioters and arrested hundreds of people.

Violence continues in KwaZulu-Natal province as well as the populous Gauteng province that includes the nation’s largest city and financial hub, Johannesburg.

Related: South Africa boosts Africa's COVID-19 vaccine supply with local manufacturing

Rioters also ransacked a community radio station, forcing it off the air. Meanwhile, some COVID-19 centers have also been closed down, disrupting urgently needed vaccinations.

The violence comes after the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for defying a court order to testify in a corruption investigation.

Related: Climate divestment activists draw inspiration from South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle

William Gumede, the executive chairperson of the Democracy Works Foundation in South Africa, discussed the unfolding situation with The World’s host Marco Werman.

Marco Werman: So, William, I said that this chaos follows the sentencing of former President Zuma, but is this unrest all about that or is there more to it?
William Gumede: In the first instance, of course, it was started by Jacob Zuma supporters who are trying to make the country ungovernable in a strategy to try to get clemency for Jacob Zuma, to try to get a presidential pardon. So, that really is the big strategy. Right now, we've got extreme poverty in the country. We've just come out of the lockdowns of cabin fever. People are coming out for the first time. And then also, the economy crashed because of COVID-19, our biggest financial crisis in 100 years in South Africa because of because COVID. And then there is also the inequality in South Africa.
Right, and this is all been festering for the past 30 years since since 1994. How has the African National Congress, South Africa's ruling party, responded to this wave of violence? Are they doing anything to calm things down?
Unfortunately, the ruling party has responded to it very inadquately. The president hasn't been visible. The ANC leaders haven't been visible. It's puzzling because, we all know that when Jacob Zuma was just about to go to jail, he refused initially for a long time. And he made threats and his supporters made threats as they came to unleash violence. So, one would have assumed that the government would be ready, would have been deployed. The army already then [deployed with] the police. The government hadn't done that. The ANC leaders did not want to be seen to be coming out harsh initially on Jacob Zuma's supporters, because they see local government elections coming in October. And these are the people [who] vote for the ANC. Perhaps more importantly, Jacob Zuma still has a lot of support within the ANC, within the ANC leadership, where many of the ANC leaders are very reluctant to take on his supporters, because they think his supporters are right to protest.
Yeah, it means that the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is walking a fine line here. How do you think his government has handled the corruption trial of Zuma, the contempt of court charge and then the 15-month sentence? Are the political institutions in South Africa still intact, do you think?
I think what we've learned now is that South Africa's judiciary and other democratic institutions, the press and civil society are very strong. So clearly, the good thing about our democracy [is that] it is standing firm. When you come from an autocratic regime and you build a democracy, there are three things that you need to do as a country to entrench the democracy. The first is, equality before the law. So, that has not happened by the fact that Jacob Zuma has been sent to prison. It means no president is above the law. The second thing is the issue of rule of law. Now, unfortunately, we are struggling. As you can see now, people are looting — Jacob Zuma supporters — they are getting away with it. So, we have not established the rule of law. And then the last one is accountability, holding people accountable. We've held Jacob Zuma accountable by sending him to jail. Now, we have to hold the looters accountable for destruction of property, of businesses and of taking those ordinary citizens' lives.
I want to come back to the other thing that you were just talking about, economic inequality. It's obviously coming to a head after 27 years post-apartheid. One of the highest unemployment rates in the world, something like 43%, which has to be impacting young people, especially. How does that change the thinking among South Africa's youth about their hopes for the future?
You know, sadly, that high unemployment level has meant that young people feel hopeless, they feel [like they're] on the margins of the economy, and because of the COVID-19 lockdown, many business have closed down and it has increased the unemployment. It's very likely that the unemployment may actually be even bigger than 40% among young people. Now, the government has mismanaged our COVID-19 response. At the beginning when other countries, like Chile, and Mexico, and Costa Rica bought whole ranges of vaccines, we didn't do that and we started the slowest of any of our peer countries. So, the government here only used the lockdown as efforts to deal with COVID-19. So, the government actually mismanaged the COVID response, which actually increased economic hardship for people. And of course, now this looting here that we've seen, it's now destroyed many, many businesses, and it will increase unemployment, and I don't think investors will be coming whether local or international. They'll see South Africa as a violent country that's instable, the investments will be instable, and won't be safe. So, you know, the looters and the Jacob Zuma crowd have just made it even more difficult from an economic perspective.
William, how do you see what's coming in the next days and weeks? What worries you the most?
What worries me is that we don't see the police, we don't see the army, although the president yesterday made a statement that he's going to deploy the army. The reports that I am receiving, and our foundation is receiving — because we are trying to see what we can do to help at a local level —[say that] the army is not there, the police is overwhelmed. They're thinly stretched. And then a second thing is, whether we will be able to get local mediators, religious leaders and local traditional leaders and local civil society groups to respond at a local level to help to bring peace, because the government on its own, and the army on its own, is not going to be able to do that. We'll have to have an almost all-of-society approach, the army and the police in the hotspots. And then we have to have locals — local business leaders all have to come together and try to stop the violence and the looting in the local areas.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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