South Africans are nervously awaiting a controversial “national shutdown” on Monday organised by a radical opposition party, which is accused of threatening violence and “looting” for those who refuse to take part.
Amid ongoing rolling blackouts — and the looming threat of a total collapse of the power grid — skyrocketing crime and unemployment and deteriorating services, the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) has announced a nationwide shutdown on March 20 to protest the ruling African National Congress (ANC) government.
But the country’s main opposition party has warned of “widespread violence” if the day is allowed to go ahead.
The EFF, which has been accused of inciting violence against white farmers through its use of the “Kill the Boer” song at its rallies, has warned businesses and shop owners to stay closed on Monday.
In a video message last week, EFF leader Julius Malema called on South Africans to “stand up, let’s go and fight, don’t be cowards”.
Malema and the EFF — South Africa’s third-largest political party — are demanding the resignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa over the energy crisis, which has seen large parts of the country plunged into rolling blackouts, known as load shedding, wreaking havoc on the economy.
“South Africans, fellow fighters and the ground forces, now is the time to take action,” Malema said in the video. “The streets are calling, we all have to occupy all the streets of South Africa. Wherever you are, make your voice be heard.”
He accused Ramaphosa and the ANC of corruption. “Enough is enough — we cannot have a President that presides over a collapsed state,” Malema said.
But the Democratic Alliance (DA), the second largest party, has asked the court for an urgent injunction to stop the “absurd” and “illegal” shutdown.
DA MP Andrew Whitfield said the plan presented a “very clear and present threat to the economy, the safety and rights of citizens as well as to public and private infrastructure”, The Citizen reported.
Whitfield has written to Police Minister Bheki Cele warning the EFF’s “rhetoric” around the shutdown indicated the protesters intend to “wilfully break the law and do not fear the consequences”.
‘By all means necessary’
He cited a recent social media post by an EFF leader from the northeastern province of Mpumalanga brandishing a rifle.
Collen Sedibe, a member of the provincial legislature, posted a photo on his Twitter account earlier this month with the caption, “By all means necessary or possible we are ready.”
At the time, the EFF denied the post constituted incitement to violence, with national spokesman Sinawo Tambo saying he saw nothing wrong with the photo.
“I have seen the picture and I see no reason for me to comment on this,” he told News24.
“In my knowledge, everyone has the right to a firearm as long as it is licensed … I see nothing wrong with this picture. I see no incitement of violence in the picture as nobody is being targeted. There is no correlation between the picture and the shutdown. Nowhere does it say bear guns.”
In his letter to Cele, Whitfield raised the spectre of the July 2021 riots sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, in which 354 people were killed.
“What measures have the South African Police Service (SAPS) put in place to ensure that protests are controlled and that consequences for any transgressions are enforced?” he asked.
“A strong message must be sent to the organisers and to the public at large that SAPS is prepared and that they will act swiftly and decisively when the rights and freedoms of others are compromised.”
The DA has also highlighted a social media video showing EFF members announcing the shutdown via a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, where the speaker is heard warning businesses to close down “to avoid the looting”.
“Close down all your shops to avoid the looting,” the speaker says.
“Close down all your factories to avoid the lootings. Close down everything — nothing will be operating on that day, we are avoiding the looting. So we are saying to you, come and join the march, my brother. Come and join the march, my sister.”
‘Illegal’ shutdown challenged
On Tuesday, the DA announced it had launched pre-emptive legal action in response to the “rampant intimidation and threats of violence” from the EFF.
In an urgent application filed with the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg, DA leader John Steenhuisen warned that unless the court did not intervene the country would be “engulfed in widespread violence”.
The case was due to be heard on Friday.
“We will not sit back and allow the EFF to threaten businesses, livelihoods and lives,” Steenhuisen said, TimesLive reported.
“There is mounting evidence on social media and in public statements by EFF leaders, members and supporters that they are prepared to break the law in pursuit of their own political agenda.”
Steenhuisen said the right to peaceful protest was “not unlimited and it can never constitute justification for criminal behaviour or behaviour that violates or threatens the rights of others”.
“Just as people have the right to protest, they also have the right to not protest, the right to not associate with the protesting organisation and the right to go to school or to work or to operate a business, and to go about their lives unhindered and unobstructed,” he said.
He added it made “no sense to instigate a nationwide shutdown to protest load shedding”.
“Shutting the economy down for a day will do nothing to solve this problem that has been decades in the making,” he said. “On the contrary, it will only push South Africa deeper into chaos and poverty.”
EFF dismisses ‘racist’ DA
In response, the EFF dismissed the DA’s “frivolous legal action” and denied the planned shutdown would be “characterised by violence”.
“Their … baseless claim of intimidation and predicted violence, is part and parcel of the DA’s racist philosophical outlook, which depends strongly on the supposed irrationality of black people, and the racist presumption that African people have capacity to express themselves in a peaceful manner,” the statement said.
“The DA cannot and will not stop the overwhelming frustration and pain of our people in defence of Cyril Ramaphosa, and these frustrations will be felt on our streets on the 20th of March 2023.”
On Thursday, the President weighed in on the shutdown, saying “anarchy or disorder” would not be tolerated.
Ramaphosa told reporters police had been briefed, warning the EFF that “regime change can only come about through a vote — it can’t come about through anarchy or disorder in the country”.
Business Day columnist Gareth van Onselen has argued the goal of the shutdown is not to “protest, disrupt or intimidate, it is to test the revolutionary waters”.
“For the EFF the fundamental edifice that is South Africa is inverted and unjust, with the rich at the top and the poor at bottom,” van Onselen wrote in a Twitter thread this week.
“It seeks to upturn all this. And revolution is how it seeks to accomplish it. Because its support is capped — there simply isn’t a majority market for fundamental socialism in SA — it needs a volatile environment to achieve this. And from there, it just needs to ‘trip the switch’.”
He pointed to comments by Mr Malema in an interview with the BBC last year, in which the EFF leader “guaranteed” there was eventually “going to be something that looks like an Arab Spring” in South Africa.
“When the unled revolution comes … the first target is going to be white people,” Malema warned.
Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) has issued a travel alert about Monday’s shutdown.
“Protests are expected across South Africa on March 20,” DFAT said in a statement on Thursday.
“Services may be disrupted. Avoid areas affected by demonstrations and protests. Follow the advice of local authorities. A state of disaster is in place due to ongoing power shortages. Rolling blackouts (load shedding) are occurring throughout South Africa. We continue to advise exercise a high degree of caution in South Africa.”
Ian Cameron from public safety lobby group Action Society said despite the rhetoric, he was doubtful the EFF “has the ability to make [the shutdown] have a real impact”.
“The problem is other opportunists abusing the situation and making it flame up more than it would,” he told news.com.au.
“None of the big EFF marches ever gained anything afterwards, nothing changed that they demanded and no one really takes them seriously. I think people do sometimes feel intimidated by their threats, but they have never really acted on their threats. When they tried, they had their butts kicked by communities.”
In 2020, residents in the Western Cape town of Brackenfell were filmed brawling outside the local high school with EFF protesters, who were angry over a private event allegedly only attended by white pupils.
The EFF was ordered to pay damages over the protests, and the school was later exonerated of racism by the South African Human Rights Commission.
One Johannesburg resident, a neighbourhood watch volunteer and emergency trainer who went viral last month with a thread arguing the country had “collapsed”, said while “people are concerned for their safety”, opinion was divided.
“The vibe is swinging both ways,” the man, who uses the anonymous online handle “K9 Reaper”, told news.com.au in a written interview.
“Half can’t wait for the day to arrive, because these communities want to initiate what we refer to as ‘Brackenfell 2.0’ — where the EFF got a ‘hiding’ by the local community in Brackenfell. The other half believes that the day will be chaos and are refusing to leave their homes.”
‘A normal day for South Africa’
He added there were “those that believe ‘our time has come’ and that they should all form militia groups to fight it out”.
“South Africa’s ‘civil defence’ groups are pushing this narrative, where go-bags are packed closer to the entrance of a home and trailers are fully packed for a quick exfil,” he said, stressing that while he was “prepared for any outcome” he did “not subscribe to the civil war idea that some believe is coming our way”.
“I am one of the millions who wish to see a better outcome for South Africa,” he said.
He said he would be keeping an eye out for any attacks that appeared to be more co-ordinated.
“South Africa has been experiencing concentrated attacks on our electrical, water and comms based infrastructure for the last two or so years,” he said. “In this period, it has really ramped up.”
He explained the what Monday might look like, based on typical protest tactics used in South Africa.
“Trucks and cars are hijacked in order to block off roads — the contents of these vehicles are also deposited on to the road surface to further deny the flow of normal traffic,” he said.
“Roads are often entrenched. A literal trench is dug across the road to deny traffic. Sometimes these trenches have debris pulled on the other side. Tyres are pulled across roads and set alight. These are very effective, not just for area access denial — but also as a form of ‘signal’. In simple terms, burning tyres are a great message. It means ‘we are here, and going nowhere’. These are South Africa’s shield-walls and pull further crowds.”
Vehicles and pedestrians are often stoned, he added, while buildings and infrastructure are damaged and looting sometimes takes place.
“My expectations — simply put, all of the above, to varying degrees,” he said.
“So basically, a normal day for South Africa.”