The last three weeks in South Africa have been lawless, even by South African standards. And yet it started so promisingly when former President Jacob Zuma finally surrendered to the police on the night of Friday, July 9, for disobeying the court, apparently ending years of legal harassment that followed years of terrifyingly corrupt rule. Numerous supporters had followed him to his rural redoubt in Zululand and threatened to prevent his arrest by any means necessary. In the end, these threats turned out to be hollow. But there was more to his followers than hollow threats.
A series of turbulent currents flowed into the river of lawlessness that has overflowed its banks in recent weeks.
It is triggered by an internal conflict within the African National Congress (ANC), the party that led the struggle against apartheid from abroad and has ruled the country since Nelson Mandela won the first democratic elections in 1994. In its unfortunate colonial history, the party has been about it fought to redress the massive social injustice it left behind, but at least until the end of Thabo Mbeki’s presidency in December 2007, it is safe to say that she mainly fights the good fight.
But the cracks in the building became apparent when Mbeki was replaced by Jacob Zuma, once head of the ANC’s intelligence department, who was now influential enough to successfully play for the presidency. Zuma brought with him a new network made up of the kind of apparatchik who knew more about post-liberation enrichment than about the dark days of the anti-apartheid struggle. And, as it turned out, Jacob Zuma was typically a Zulu.
Contrary to the external perception, South Africa is not seriously divided by so-called tribal politics. But despite the ANC’s long public and genuine commitment to one-nation politics, leadership roles are in fact unevenly divided among the different ethnic groups. For most of the ANC’s history, Xhosas, like Presidents Mandela and Mbeki, have spearheaded the organization. Above all, this reflects the fact that large-scale modern education has arrived in the Xhosa Territories before the Zulu and other indigenous peoples.
That is not to say that there were no prominent Zulu leaders in the ANC – the obvious examples are John Dube and Albert Luthuli – but, and this is a crucial point, they did not emphasize their Zuluness. This would have contradicted the “national” ethos reflected in the organization’s name, an ethos also defined as “non-racism” that encompassed all South Africans who wanted to combat the injustices of apartheid, including whites.
Unsurprisingly, the apartheid government offered temptations to black politicians who were willing to accept racial and ethnic categories. The hereditary Zulu leadership has long been able to play a cunning version of this game, with traditional Zulu territory being able to retain some degree of autonomy to distance itself from the national, cosmopolitan, modernizing ANC. After apartheid, however, as was to be expected, the most prominent vehicle for the Zulu identity, the Inkatha movement of chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, a rural expression of traditional culture, fought for its dynamism. Ethnic chauvinism looked like a spent force for a while. Until the Zuma presidency.
Jacob Zuma had made the effort, both before and during his presidency, to convince the Zulus that traditional Zulu culture, including recognition of the king, could be combined with the ANC ideology, and ironically this played a role in this Then releasing to make peace with, Inkatha. He also diligently built patronage networks, largely, but not exclusively, rooted in the Zulu community.
However, the remaining strength of the ANC’s inclusive legacy has meant that, despite Zuma’s skillful instrumentalization of the Zulu identity, the current turmoil cannot be understood as an ethnic conflict. It is true that the vast majority of supporters of his faction are Zulus, but it is not true that the vast majority of Zulus are supporters of his faction. And at the higher levels, his network has no ethnicity.
The line between patronage and corruption is thin, and a national judicial commission, ironically appointed by Zuma himself during his tenure, is currently investigating where he and his entourage stood on that line. Nobody doubts the truth, least of all the man himself, as he has shown in an extraordinary way how to take advantage of legal formalities to avoid testifying.
The evidence is clear – parastatal organizations like South African Airways and national electricity company Eskom have been plundered to the point of barely functioning, and numerous Zuma-affiliated politicians have amassed incredible fortunes during their tenure, legitimate reasons for which are hard to find are.
The judiciary ran out of patience at the end of June when the apparently inviolable ex-president was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to testify before the corruption commission. The police had three days to arrest him in court if he did not face unsuspecting taxpayers – where he was soon surrounded by fire-breathing supporters who faced dire consequences if he were taken into custody.
And then, surprisingly, Zuma blinked first. On the night of July 7th, he surrendered to police and was detained in the nearby town of Estcourt. One to zero for the state, one to zero for the rule of law and a blow to ethnic chauvinism, (almost) everyone said. Little did they know how much damage public order was going to take.
In response to the arrest, a combination of massive opportunistic looting and less visible organized sabotage left the province of KwaZulu-Natal in ruins within a few days, as did parts of the country’s economic center, the province of Gauteng, which also has significant numbers of Zulu Speakers. Thousands of people stormed, emptied and burned shopping malls – more than 150 of which were destroyed – and warehouses. Interestingly, the strategic highway between Durban, the country’s largest port, and Johannesburg was blocked in what appeared to be a professional operation, and numerous substations and water treatment plants were also attacked. Meanwhile, there was no response from the police or the armed forces.
Three weeks later, almost 400 people had died, the economic damage was estimated at almost 2 billion US dollars, food and medical supplies in many parts of the two provinces affected were severely disrupted, racial tensions (especially between the Zulus and the Indians of Durban, A community has invested heavily in small and medium-sized businesses as well as between Zulus and immigrants from other parts of Africa), massive job losses have been predicted and incalculable damage has been done to the feeling that South Africa is a country where justice reigns and is based on law and order could leave. If things have calmed down now, it is probably because there is nothing left to take.
So what should we make of all of this?
First, South Africa is an extremely unequal country. A tiny minority lives in great wealth, a smaller minority (initially predominantly white, now more diverse) lives reasonably comfortably, at least as far as they are not dependent on government services, and the vast majority of citizens (almost all blacks) live in unimaginable poverty in the United States. This is the proverbial explosion waiting to happen.
But that particular explosion hasn’t happened yet. It is significant that seven of the country’s nine provinces did not experience any looting, although some of them were significantly poorer than KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The roots of this unrest must therefore be sought in this corrupt and extortionate faction of the ANC, which Jacob Zuma has a firm grip on and fears that it will go under with him. In an attempt to set the country on fire, this network hoped to capitalize on a “spontaneous” insurrection and use the resulting chaos to restore control of the party, and hence the government. But this attempt, too narrow and too ethnically based, burned itself out before the authority of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was seriously threatened. The president, who was unchallenged in all but the two provinces affected, simply had to keep calm and weather the crisis, ideally without causing great loss of life.
The economic puzzle for South Africa, as everywhere, is that those excluded from prosperity and security tend to burn down what they perceive to be “the system”. This marginalized segment of the population makes up a much larger percentage of the total population than its equivalent in the United States. But of course the looting of the system is exacerbating inequalities, and it is difficult to imagine how reconstruction can happen without the centripetal economic forces that are responsible for the massive marginalization in the first place. And so the pendulum swings.