SOUTH African authorities fear a new wave of uprisings as networks loyal to jailed former president Jacob Zuma seek to force his freedom.
Investigators believe the unrest last week, which killed more than 200 and caused massive damage across a swath of the country, was deliberately provoked as part of a broader strategy by political opponents to force president Cyril Ramaphosa to pardon Zuma or even step down.
The worst violence since the end of the apartheid regime 27 years ago has injured many people beyond the 200 people dead and caused massive economic damage. Hundreds of shops have been looted, factories destroyed, warehouses razed, clinics vandalised and ports disabled.
On Friday, Ramaphosa, in his third televised speech in six days, said it was clear the unrest had been an attempt to provoke an insurrection. “The constitutional order of our country is under threat. These actions are intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge – the democratic state,” said the president, who suceeded Zuma in 2018.
“Those responsible for organising this campaign of violence have not yet been apprehended and their networks have not yet been dismantled … We must therefore remain vigilant.”
Officials now fears that networks loyal to Zuma will attempt further sabotage operations to destabilise the government, and possibly attempt to provoke security forces into opening fire on civilians, thus undermining the legitimacy of Ramaphosa’s government.
“The second phase is to burn resources, [then] they will be able to wage a serious war and hide behind the people. They can mobilise the masses if people are hungry. A serious military operation is yet to come. People go hungry because there is no food, and that is when they will launch the next phase,” one official source said.
The unrest reached Johannesburg, the commercial capital of South Africa, but was concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal, the south-eastern province that is a stronghold of Zuma. Police discovered several large caches of ammunition in Durban during the week, which minister of police Bheki Cele said belonged to people who were instigating the violent riots in the coastal city.
Many of the targets attacked during six days of violence suggested a campaign of deliberate sabotage aimed at making the country ungovernable, experts said.
“The burning of trucks and factories … is linked to people around the former president, said Gareth Newham, head of justice and violence prevention at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria.
William Gumede, chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation, a group supporting governance in Africa, said the violence had been well-coordinated and well-funded. “Strategic commercial hubs were blocked, strategic roads were blocked at really key points. It was very organised,” said Gumede.
“The arson, the looting and then the burning of malls, the burning of warehouses … that indicates a really strategic destruction of the economy of KwaZulu-Natal.”
Zuma, who once ran the ruling African National Congress party’s intelligence operations, acquired many allies in South Africa’s military and security services during his long time in power, experts say.
These have rallied to Zuma’s cause as a series of senior figures who thrived during his rule have been marginalised, hit with legal cases or forced to relinquish powerful posts.
The jailing of the former president for repeated failure to appear before a judicial inquiry probing allegations of systematic corruption during his rule was a significant victory for Ramaphosa, who leads a moderate and pragmatic faction of the ANC, but appears to have provoked a violent response.
Zuma’s supporters say the 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents. On Friday, the “Free Jacob Zuma Campaign”, which is led by two suspended members of the ANC, issued an ultimatum to Ramaphosa, saying the president had 14 days to release his predecessor.
“Let us be crystal clear; we do not support violence. Only a free president Zuma can address our nation and call for calm,” a statement from the campaign said.
“White monopoly capitalism and the parasitic black comprador capitalist that continues the exploitation of our people are our main enemies. Their removal from power and continuing control over our economy and lives is non-negotiable and cannot wait a day longer.”
Zuma’s faction claimed to want to implement a “radical economic transformation” of South Africa, one of the most unequal societies in the world – though, under his rule, unemployment soared, services deteriorated and institutions were undermined by widespread corruption.
Half of South Africans now live below the official poverty line and unemployment stood at a record 32% in the first three months of 2021, due partly to the impact of Covid-19.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation – a legacy of the late leader of the anti-apartheid struggle – said the state needed to tackle the root causes of violence.
“There are too many people feeling discarded and in despair, too many people with nothing to lose, too many people who have seen political and other elites at all levels play fast and loose with the law, with impunity,” the foundation said.
The extent of the devastation caused by the unrest is only now becoming clear. Companies reported more than 1,000 shops had been looted and dozens of fast-food restaurants across the two provinces hit by the unrest. Goods worth between $400m and $1bn have been stolen or destroyed, according to initial industry estimates.
Dozens of factories producing food and medicine were also looted. This, combined with attacks on clinics, has left hundreds of thousands suffering chronic conditions without medication in KwaZulu Natal, which has some of the highest rates of HIV in the world.
The head of Statistics South Africa, Risenga Maluleke, said it could take years to rebuild damaged infrastructure, and that small businesses “will find it difficult to rise from the ashes”. The unrest has also disrupted South Africa’s much-delayed vaccine rollout and treatment of Covid cases as the country suffers a devastating third wave of infections.