The violence in South Africa is escalating: the sheer chaos

South African soldiers keep warm during the night, Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, July 13. Image: keystone

The violence in South Africa is escalating: the sheer chaos

The violence in South Africa claims more and more deaths. Shots rang out in the streets, a shopping mall was on fire, and even the military seemed powerless. An anger that had long been pent up is erupting in the country.

Patrick Diekmann / t-online

The images are like in the civil war: In many provinces of South Africa entire streets have been devastated, military helicopters are circling over the cities, soldiers and police officers patrol with machine guns, a shopping center is on fire near Johannesburg. Again and again there are angry protests with high levels of violence and burning barricades. Hordes of looters strike in the shadow of the riots. What cannot be taken with you will be destroyed. They are sad scenes of waste, especially for a country where so many people suffer from poverty.

A factory near Durban was set on fire, July 14th. Image: keystone

According to official information from the security authorities, 72 people have been killed in the excesses of violence, many more have been injured and at least 1,200 have been arrested. Most of the fatalities were looters – they were trampled dead by other looters. Nevertheless, there seems to be no end to the senseless destruction in sight, on the contrary: the conflagration is affecting more and more provinces in South Africa, and even the mobilization of the military has so far had little effect.

The northern province of Gauteng with the economic metropolis of Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria as well as the eastern province of Kwazulu-Natal are particularly affected. In the particularly badly affected port city of Durban, the city administration announced on Tuesday that there could be problems with the city’s utility services – such as the water supply – because of the protests.

How could it possibly come this far?

The root of the current anarchy in the country is not the arrest of ex-President Jacob Zuma, the problem lies deeper. The anger and despair of many people are currently discharging – over the corruption of the governments in the last decades and over the persistent poverty of a large part of the population.

The corrupt ex-president

However, the protests against Zuma’s imprisonment last week were undoubtedly the decisive spark. The former president had been sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment for disregarding the judiciary, starting a week ago – the 79-year-old turned himself in to the police at the weekend. He has to answer before a commission of inquiry into various allegations of corruption during his term of office (2009-2018), but did not accept a subpoena.

Jacob Zuma: The arrest of the former president led to the start of the protests in South Africa. Image: keystone

Presumably not without reason, because criticism of mismanagement and corruption reached its peak in South Africa in 2018 – at the end of Zuma’s presidency. There were repeated reports that leading politicians and an administrative elite in the country were putting millions in their own pockets, and the former head of state himself was also in focus.

Zuma not only had a swanky private residence built at state expense, but was also confronted with a total of 16 fraud, bribery and extortion charges relating to the purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats and military equipment from five European defense companies in 1999 for 30 billion rand – at that time the equivalent of almost 5 billion dollars – refer.

Johannesburg: Police attempt to evict looters, July 12th. Image: keystone

But he still has followers who believe in his innocence. After all, he won two elections by a clear margin. They started the protests. However, those South Africans whose enemy is Zuma quickly joined them. Because of poverty, they take their anger into the shops to loot.

After the chaos, the next catastrophe lurks

His party, the African National Congress (ANC), has since broken with Zuma. She continues to rule, but suffered significant losses in the last election in 2019 and the worst election result since the end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s former party still got over 57 percent of the vote. Cyril Ramaphosa, the current president of the country, made the fight against corruption a central political goal.

The unemployment rate in South Africa from 1980 to 2020 and forecast to 2026:

The unemployment rate in South Africa from 1980 to 2020 and forecast to 2026. statistics: statista 2021

In the fight against another problem, social inequality in the country, Ramaphosa has so far been one thing above all: unsuccessful. The unemployment rate in the country continues to rise rapidly, even before the Corona crisis it was over 28 percent. The resulting poverty leads to an extremely high crime rate, South Africa is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. This applies not only to robberies, but also to murders and rape. In addition, South Africa has one of the highest HIV rates in the world, affecting over 20 percent of the total population.

Number of murders in South Africa from 2006 to 2020

Number of murders in South Africa from 2006 to 2020. daten: institute for security studies/statista 2021

Then in 2020 the pandemic came and hit the country hard. The government responded quickly with a lockdown, but the virus was unstoppable. Rapid contamination also led to the development of the beta variant in the country, against which Astrazeneca’s vaccine provided inadequate protection. Therefore, the government suspended vaccination with the vaccine.

The result is that South Africa is still a long way from defeating Corona. The incidence is currently 216.5, just 2.3 percent of the population are fully vaccinated. The next pandemic catastrophe is lurking in the shadow of the current chaos, with consequences for the entire continent.

A collective frenzy of looting

Against the background of the general frustration with the grievances in the country, a kind of collective looting frenzy suddenly broke out in the past few days. The protests have long since taken on a life of their own and have developed a new dynamic.

Durban: Looters stand in front of a shopping center next to a burning barricade, July 12th. Image: keystone

“It looks like a sale shortly after Christmas,” said a reporter who, together with the police, watched crowds of people looting. Everything that could somehow be taken away was carried away. Eyewitnesses reported in front of the camera on people who drove up in mid-range cars and took away refrigerators, beds, clothes or shoes. Even a picture of a young looter with a dildo in hand made the rounds on social media.

The law enforcement officers had to watch powerlessly in view of the mass of looters or take cover from stone throwers. On the Internet – for example in Durban – neighborhood helpers were organized to prevent the anarchy from spilling over into residential areas.

The helpless president

The police, the government, the military – all of them seem helpless. Soldiers are supposed to patrol, but initially secure critical infrastructure such as hospitals and airports. They are too slow to get to the scene of the fire that flares up quickly in the provinces. The police, too, often intervene too late or not at all.

A South African police officer guards suspected looters in Vosloorus near Johannesburg, July 13th. Image: keystone

President Ramaphosa is running out of ideas. He tries appeals, warnings, and gives the demonstrators the right to protest peacefully. But he clearly condemns the shocking violence on the streets: “Acts of violence that have not been seen since the beginning of South African democracy,” he said in a TV address on Monday. During his speech, live images were played from a shopping center in Durban, in which people were strolling unhindered with baskets and other containers to loot. “It’s not us,” said a serious-looking president.

The fact that Ramaphosa has lost control of the situation makes it unclear where the current situation is headed – making it all the more dangerous. The president is faced with the insoluble task of simultaneously fighting the corona infection figures, poverty, rising unemployment figures and corruption in his own party and government. Zuma’s incarceration was seen as a milestone for the latter, but what would be a major step forward for South African democracy led to excessive violence.

The escalation shows that even if Zuma was released, the fire would not be extinguished. The main problems in South Africa are the poverty and the lack of prospects for a large part of the population. Accordingly, the president is only partially right when he says, with a view to the looting, that “this is not us”. Because the current chaos is the mirror of the many social problems, the legacy of apartheid.

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