Explainer: Why violence is engulfing South Africa

July 15, 2021

Demonstrators loot the Ayoba Cold Store as protests continue, following imprisonment of former South Africa President Jacob Zuma, in Chesterville, Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa July 12, 2021, in this still image obtained from social media video. Siphiwe Emacous Moyo Snr/via REUTERS

JOHANNESBURG, (Reuters) – Days of riots and looting in South Africa have left more than 70 people dead, hurt thousands of businesses and damaged major infrastructure in some of the worst civil unrest since the end of white minority rule in 1994.

What is driving the violence?


The unrest started after former President Jacob Zuma handed himself over last week to start a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court.

Zuma supporters, who believe he is the victim of a political witch-hunt, burned tyres and blocked roads in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Support for Zuma stems partly from his image as a man of the people during his nine years in power until 2018, and because some see his jailing as an attack on the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu.

Although many wealthy and middle-class South Africans were overjoyed when Zuma was ousted after multiple sleaze and graft allegations, he still retains loyal followings in KwaZulu-Natal and some poor, rural areas.

His support among the population mirrors a division within the governing African National Congress (ANC), where a pro-Zuma faction opposes his successor President Cyril Ramaphosa.


The hardship that persists 27 years after the end of apartheid is a major reason why hundreds of shops and dozens of malls have been stripped bare.

Statistics agency data show roughly half of the country’s 35 million adults live below the poverty line and that young people are disproportionately affected by unemployment.

South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world according to the commonly-used Gini index, with a “dual economy” catering to a small, largely white elite and large, mainly black majority.

Moves by the ANC, which has governed since the start of democratic rule, to redistribute land and wealth have progressed slowly.


COVID-19 has exacerbated poverty, with a recent survey showing a sharp increase in hunger.

Official unemployment hit a record high above 32% in the first three months of 2021.

Although the government increased social grants to cushion the pandemic, it cannot afford to match the costly furlough schemes of wealthier nations.


Police say some criminals have been taking advantage of anger over Zuma’s imprisonment to steal and cause destruction. So far more than 1,200 people have been arrested.


People are fanning the violence with inflammatory comments and social media posts, security officials say.

Two people drawing criticism are a spokesman for Zuma’s charitable foundation, Mzwanele Manyi, who attributed some early acts of violence to “righteous anger”, and Zuma’s daughter Duduzile.

Manyi told Reuters the violence could have been avoided and that the manner in which 79-year-old Zuma was jailed reminded people of the apartheid days.

An account bearing Duduzile’s name has repeatedly posted images and videos of protests and violence on Twitter with the rallying cry “Amandla!” (Power!) used during the liberation struggle. Reuters has not been able to reach her to verify she posted those messages.

The ANC has said it is concerned by the tweets and that party member Duduzile will have to explain herself.

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