Investigating the Causes and Consequences of South Africa’s July 2021 Riots
Rising unemployment, devastating economic inequality and political corruption have all contributed to the civil unrest witnessed earlier this year.
It is a chilly Monday morning, and Khanyisile Bengu is walking her three children to school in Inanda, a township in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Normally, she would be on her way to the ShopRite supermarket at the nearby Dube Mall, where she’d been working as a cashier. That is no longer possible. Arsonists burned the mall down in the July 2021 protests. After four years of full-time employment, Bhengu is now jobless.
She ponders on her uncertain future, recalling the mayhem that led to her present circumstance. Speaking to Africa in Focus, she narrates how she watched her workplace vandalised by the rioters before being set on flames.
She tells us: “On the first day, I saw people passing by the streets carrying alcohol, vodkas and ciders in bulk. When I asked where they got them from, they said they had broken into the mall and looted the booty. At first, I didn’t believe them, until I followed them and saw that it was really happening. There was an enormous crowd of people in an uncontrollable stampede. In all my years of working, I have never seen so many people at the mall .
“There were old men and women, young children, youth. The crowd was so large, no cars could move. The streets belonged to the people who were as fierce as lions. They could have chewed and spit you out if you tried to dissuade them or get in their way. I was right there, but it was like a dream. I went home that night in disbelief and went to sleep. When I woke up the next morning, I realised people had not slept. Had they gone mad? How could they not sleep looting one mall till the morning? I thought it should have been empty by then.”
But this was not so. She recalls the rampage lasting three days in Dube village mall. On the last day, they burned it down: “As I was watching my work place go up in smoke, I could only think about my financial responsibilities. Without a job and having a family to take care of, where would I get money for my kid’s uniform? Where would I get pocket money for my kids to carry to school? How would I pay for utilities, for food? I slept for a full day and a half. I couldn’t bring myself to wake up and face what was now my reality.”
But the thing she feared the most came upon her. Soon after this, her employer rendered her jobless: “I was in pain, and all I wanted was to sit down and just cry. We got called in by our superiors at work after the mall had completely stopped burning. It took days. It was tense. My colleagues were feeling the same way as I did. It was tough. Everyone was going on about how they don’t have qualifications to easily get other jobs and thinking about their families.”
Desperate crowds looting food from a shopping centre that is partly burning (Image: Themba Hadebe/AP)
“the worst violence since the nation achieved democracy in 1994”
The story of Khanyisile Bengu is not an isolated one, and neither is the burning down of Dube Mall a one-off incident. South Africa experienced what has been described as “the worst violence since the nation achieved democracy in 1994”. The riots that ensued in early July 2021 left over 300 dead, with at least 161 malls, 11 warehouses, and 8 factories looted – many other buildings were torched to the ground. Vandals also attacked infrastructure, including industries and telecommunication towers. The eThekwini Economic Development and Planning Committee, a consortium based in KwaZulu-Natal, places the damage at R1.5 bn lost in stock, R15 bn loss to property, and a loss in income potential felt by approximately 1.5 million people. Fifty thousand of these people are informal traders, who were already typically under-resourced, and are now left financially destitute. The overall cost to the eThekwini GDP is upwards of R20 bn – nearly £100 million.
In the Beginning, Jacob Zuma was Arrested
“The Constitutional Court can do nothing but conclude that Mr Zuma is guilty of the crime of contempt of court… The majority judgement orders an unsuspended sentence of imprisonment for a period of 15 months”.
This declaration by judge Sisi Khampepe on 29th June 2021, which ordered former President Zuma to surrender himself to police custody within five days, would ultimately be the trigger leading to the revolt.
In January 2018, a commission was established by the African National Congress (ANC), following a legally binding order by the former public protector, Thuli Madonselas, to take remedial action after her state of capture report. Deputy chief justice Zondo and his team were then appointed to investigate the alleged state capture of South Africa. Testimonies pointing fingers at Zuma and his cabinet were heard, with the president being accused of grand-scale corruption during his time in office. Despite many summonses to appear before the inquiry and respond, Zuma refused. Instead, he called for the inquiry’s head, Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, to be recused. The judgment to have Zuma arrested came five months after the same court ordered him to appear before the commission, which he defied.
But his supporters were having none of it. They gathered in their hundreds in front of his home in KwaZulu-Natal and formed barricades to prevent his arrest. Just before midnight on 7th July, the deadline set by the court, he handed himself over to the police; his incarceration sparked the week-long uprisings.
“The scenes were likened to being in a war zone or the site of a natural disaster”
In KwaZulu-Natal, demonstrators set up roadblocks on the N3 and N2 highways, which link the Indian Ocean ports of Durban and Richards Bay to the industrial hubs of Johannesburg and Cape Town, where they hijacked and burnt about 20 trucks, effectively cutting off the port city from the rest of the country. The protests, which quickly evolved to plundering and criminality, spread to other parts of KwaZulu-Natal; shopping malls and retail centres were ransacked by mobs that pilfered food, electronics, clothes and liquor. The wave then shifted inland to Gauteng province, Johannesburg – South Africa’s largest city – and Pretoria, the capital. In Durban and Pietermaritzburg, major retail warehouses.
Many experts have stated that Zuma’s arrest was only a trigger, but many other factors contributed to the riots. (Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko)
For five days, acts of looting and arson continued in malls and warehouses. The scenes were likened to being in a war zone or the site of a natural disaster. Shopping bags, shoe boxes, rice, potatoes and other commodities littered the Durban central business district. Most shops had broken glasses and steel bars bent out of shape as the smell of burnt materials filled the air.
Unemployment, Lockdowns and Desperation
South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, with a small class enjoying a deeply privileged standard of living while the majority – comprising mainly Black and Coloured communities – live below the poverty line. The official unemployment rate, driven to a record high by one of the strictest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world, was 32.6% in the first quarter of this year and 46.3% among youth under 35, according to Stats SA. The lockdowns pushed people deeper into financial hardship. Impoverished workers, nearly all of whom are Black, are almost four times as likely to have lost jobs since COVID-19. The government also suspended the R350 welfare grants introduced at the start of the virus, only to re-introduce them, though many are yet to see any of this assistance. In addition, June saw President Ramaphosa send the country into a stricter level 4 lockdown, which limited the operations of many businesses and meant further income loss for many. Consequently, the violence was widely seen as an expression of anger and frustration by people living in poverty.
How Did the Police Respond?
For days, the chaos continued as the police looked on. They watched as people piled contraband onto pickup trucks and ran out of malls with loot. They also failed to interfere as mobs set surrounding establishments alight. It took almost a week before authorisation was given by the president for about 25,000 troops to be deployed. Only then was the violence quelled.
“Thobile Mseleku got a call no parent would want to receive. Her son Cebo had been shot”
Having been let down by the state security agencies, some citizens took matters into their own hands. Community groups started patrolling and defending the businesses in their neighbourhoods.
In Adams, South of Durban, Cebo Mseleku and his neighbours stood guard outside a tuck shop to prevent looters from accessing it. But on 12th July, the fifth day of the unrest, Thobile Mseleku got a call no parent would want to receive. Her son Cebo had been shot. A witness claims a group of unknown men fired at the group manning the tuck-shop. Cebo got hit and died.
Mseleku said, “My brother called me and first said my son was injured because he couldn’t bring himself to say that his life ended right on the spot. I have no words to explain what I felt at the time, and I couldn’t even get to him because there were no taxis and people were scared to drive around at night because of the riots and shootings.”
Tina Joemat-Pettersson, the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, claims the security agency is not to be blamed. She says lack of resources, people-power, and funding prevented them from acting sooner, and if they had been well-equipped, they would have been able to minimise the mass ransacking seen in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
While addressing the press on 21st July at Maponya Mall in Soweto, a shopping centre that survived looting because of residents’ stance against the mayhem, she said: “The police budget has been cut previously, and it will be cut by R11 billion. In this financial year. The ministry of police lost over R1 billion in its budget. Last year, we were supposed to have an intake of 7,000 recruits. This year we were also to take on 7,000 new police officers. This means 14,000 job opportunities have been lost. Due to budget cuts, we were unable to take not even a single police recruit for training”.
These riots highlighted the problems that were already plaguing the country. The security agencies passed on the buck of blame to the government. But the government, too, had their excuses and were also pointing fingers.
On 12th July, President Ramaphosa said, “There may have been some people who sought to agitate for violence and disorder along ethnic lines.” Four days later, in his address to the nation on 16th July, he referred to the riots as “insurrection”, and “nothing less than a deliberate, co-ordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy”. On 2oth July, he mentioned the use of “criminal networks” to organise looting.
The national police commissioner, Khehla Sitole, informed the National Assembly’s Portfolio Committee on 23rd July that eleven suspected instigators of the unrest had been arrested and were behind bars. Other alleged proponents named included former Ukhozi F.M Radio presenter Ngizwe Mchunu, Zuma’s twin children, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla and Duduzane Zuma. The latter had said just days earlier that people should steal “carefully” and “responsibly.”
“looting and vandalism may have included a deep network of rogue intelligence operatives”
According to the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC), there was also an organised campaign on Twitter using hashtags such as #FreeZuma now, #SAShutdown and #RamaphosaMustFall to incite discontentment.
In what is a deviation from what an ordinary protest looks like, key points of South Africa’s economy were targeted, such as the harbour and factories. Reports suggested that many more firearms from a shipping container may have been misappropriated. Some were found in a Phoenix businessmans’ home who was linked to the insurgency in said area. Daily Maverick, a South African online daily, said that the masterminds behind the scorched-earth-style looting and vandalism may have included a deep network of rogue intelligence operatives whose work was inadvertently or strategically promoted by public figures, including the aforementioned former radio DJ.
Based on information from various sources and message screen-grabs, some of the criminal chaos was indeed plotted. It was encouraged via online platforms, including WhatsApp and Twitter, then launched with meticulously briefed groups, targeting key sites.
The screen-grabs from a whatsapp group named “national shutdown” show precise plans to loot and burn certain establishments being hashed out. The first message at the top left of the corner reads, “Let’s work hard, go as far and wide as we can, comrades, as for McDonald’s restaurants there will be crying, let them burn down!” The texts show clear disdain for the current president as he is referred to as a baboon and Jacob Zuma is referred to as the actual president, and somewhat a hero that is being mistreated by ‘the enemy’. One can also discern that these are ANC members as they mention party factions and not wearing the political party t-shirts and colours as they might have made them easily identifiable. One other message reads, “sorry my cadre in every revolution there will be casualties. We strongly condemn the looting of black owned businesses. Attack Shoprite, Pick N Pay, Woolworths, Absa, FNB and Capitec.”
In KwaZulu-Natal, pro-Zuma organisations such as the now-disbanded Mkhonto WeSizwe Veterans Associations (MKMVA) are known to carefully plan riots. It has been reported that the association meets in expensive hotels to set out their strategies and, in the past, organised xenophobic protests and attacks. In previous offensives, they have used social media as a vital tool to incite violence. The organisation came out saying it is “outraged” by the assertion from the Deputy State Security Minister, Zizi Kodwa, that the incidents of looting and violence were consistent with the organisation’s modus operandi. The MKMVA has been at loggerheads with the ANC following the governing party’s decision to disband the structure. This issue is only one of many that show how deep the internal divide is within the ANC.
A collection of screen-grabs from a whatsapp group that’s alleged to have been planning the destruction of property and businesses. “All of Bidvest must be in flames, 46 warehouses, offices, factories and fleet”, one screenshot reads. Image: DailyMaverick.co.za
If indeed the events that took place were not brought on by masses being fed up with the widespread poverty and inequality, but by a highly organised group of pro-Zuma supporters, then the deaths of people like Cebo Mseleku were even more in vain than before – reduced to mere collateral damage in a political stand-off.
Racial Tensions and Xenophobia
According to sociologist Professor Rugunanan, “In the time of a pandemic, vulnerabilities are heightened, putting already vulnerable communities on a knife edge of discord.” As much as most South African citizens aspire towards the notion of a “rainbow nation”, racial and ethnic divides so often rear its ugly head. The July protests were no exception.
In Phoenix, the riots led to Black people being racially profiled as criminals. Security companies owned by Indian locals and community members barricaded their neighbourhoods and wouldn’t let black people pass through without their cars being searched for stolen goods. If goods that were suspected to be looted were found with them, their cars would be burnt.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier, Sihle Zikalala, said on July 24th, “At least 38 people are reported to have been killed by vigilante groups [during the unrest]” He continued, stating, “These murders are not only from Phoenix but also in Inanda and Verulam areas.” 36 suspects have been arrested in connection to what has been dubbed the Phoenix Massacre. Officials have been working to clear the tensions as it can have dire consequences if the violence continues. There have been calls to have a commission of enquiry into the killings in Phoenix.
“the marginalised find it easier to scapegoat African migrants for their broken rainbow nation and unfulfilled dreams of a better South Africa”
Foreign national business owners were also affected during the protests, as most tuck shops in townships and saloons are owned by African migrants. Somali spaza shop (South African tuck shop/ corner shop) owners and shopkeepers mobilised dozens of vehicles that could accommodate numerous people, such as minivans. More helping hands from the Mayfair area in Johannesburg rescued what stock they could before the looters and rioters arrived. According to a report in New Frame, this response has been refined through the years after several xenophobic attacks on migrant shopkeepers in the province. When such incidents occur, a distressed Somali spaza shop worker or shopkeeper may alert others that a mob is on its way. Within minutes, men in Mayfair will arrive in pickup trucks to the establishments under threat to evacuate those working there and save as much stock as possible.
But this time, the riots were too forceful and too widespread to save all the shops, with many saying the damage they suffered in the 2019 xenophobic violence paled in comparison with the latest unrest.
Sociologist Prof. Rugunanan Pragna explains that the underlying causes for xenophobia mirror those of this year’s July riots: “The xenophobic attitudes and attacks are driven by unsubstantiated perceptions that mainly African migrants are to blame for South Africa’s unemployment and poverty woes. Rather than interrogating structural, instrumental and political processes and holding politicians accountable, the marginalised find it easier to scapegoat African migrants for their broken rainbow nation and unfulfilled dreams of a better South Africa. Many migrants live in urban informal settlements where poverty and unemployment levels are high. The competition for scarce resources fuels xenophobic attitudes and scapegoating. The high crime statistics is another area where foreigners are blamed by the police and politicians. Despite such claims, there is no evidence to support these claims. While a link between poverty, unemployment and xenophobic attacks has yet to be shown, these are crucial triggers for ongoing xenophobic attacks in urban informal settlements.”
The End of All Things
“what can’t be restored is the emotional trauma suffered by the friends and families of the over 300 people that died during this tumultuous period”
Despite the attempts to economically sabotage and tear at the social fabric in South Africa, there have been many signs of citizens resisting the efforts and pulling together. People such as Archam Khan, whose shop Cebo Mseleku was protecting on the night he was murdered, realised that they are supported and safe in their communities.
Khan said, “Being a refugee in SA, we are usually hurt first when things like this happen. The community stood up for me and my business this time in a way you cannot imagine. I feel very sad that Cebo lost his life like that. He was always here, making jokes and being kind to everyone.’
One of the clean-up operations that were initiated by communities post looting. This is in the coastal city Durban in KwaZulu-Natal province (Zambian Whistleblower via Facebook)
The makeshift roadblocks and mounds of rubbish around KwaZulu-Natal have cleared. Residents are picking up the pieces after the looting. Some shops have opened up again. But what can’t be restored is the emotional trauma suffered by the friends and families of the over 300 people that died during this tumultuous period.
During one of the clean-up operations happening in and around KwaZulu-Natal, Mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla said that people pulling together and taking responsibility for their communities is a fight back to any instigators.
Thebolla said, “Part of the reason we wanted people to come out in numbers is that we want to claim back our city from looters and gangsters and quell the racial tensions that were beginning to rise.”
Meanwhile, the long shadow of Jacob Zuma and the effects of the July 2021 explosion will be felt for a considerable time. South Africans are consumed with picking up the pieces, stitching back together the political, economic and social fabric of the country, and possibly searching for the next rainbow. Businesses are slowly re-opening, attempting to recover the lost income and make up for the damage.
The riots held up a mirror to the country and, in that moment of the tower crumbling, there was a chance to set new intentions and run towards the metamorphosis of the South African narrative.
Last month, South Africans were encouraged to register to vote in the local government elections that will be held in November. However, until the ANC rebuilds its image or a new faction rises to challenge the status quo, this ballot will prove a parody of the democracy citizens fought just under for three decades ago.
Written By: Naledi Sikhakhane is a freelance journalist and social justice advocate who has written for publications such as New Frame, Dispatch Live and TimesLive. Follow her on Twitter Instagram and learn more about her work here.
Header Image: Supporters of former South African President Jacob Zuma block the freeway with burning tyres during a protest in Peacevale, South Africa, July 9, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward/File Photo/File Photo