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Jacob Zuma

South Africa: a failed state?

A woman is arrested in Katlehong, east of Johannesburg. Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

A week ago, I was just worried about getting my jab – “now I’m more worried about where we’re getting bread from”, says Paddy Harper in the Mail & Guardian (South Africa). In my hometown of Durban, in the northeast province of KwaZulu-Natal, where rioting started last week, people are being murdered, three malls have been “stripped” and the city centre has been trashed. The spark that ignited this chaos was the imprisonment last week of Jacob Zuma. The former president was put away for being in contempt of a corruption trial. 

He’s charged with fraud, racketeering and laundering money through a £3bn arms deal, which he denies. But then the violence spread to Gauteng, around Johannesburg, and beyond: major roads have been blocked, 200 shopping malls looted and up to $1bn worth of goods stolen or destroyed. At least 117 people have died and more than 3,000 arrested. Vigilante groups are patrolling neighbourhoods. President Cyril Ramaphosa has warned of food, fuel and medicine shortages and has called for 25,000 troops to support the overwhelmed police. 

Don’t mistake this “as a sign of massive political support” for the former president, says Eusebius McKaiser in The Washington Post. This is about “the moral decline, and technocratic failure, of the African National Congress-run state” over the past quarter of a century. Far from being “‘Free Zuma’ goons”, many of the rioters are among the 74% of under-25s in the country without a job. Millions have been left behind by Nelson Mandela’s old slogan “A better life for all”. They have “no reason to be excited about waking up tomorrow” – so what have they to lose by rioting?

Actually, many of the looters will have family members employed in those shattered businesses – and they will now be out of a job, says Omry Makgoale in the Daily Maverick (South Africa). “Cutting off your nose to spite your face, as they say.” Some are saying the country is a “failed state” – look at Zuma’s son Duduzane, asking rioters to loot “responsibly”. But why did the local authorities take so long to respond? Were the police in cahoots with Zuma’s cronies? This looks more like “an attempted coup d’état” by supporters of the former president. That’s unlikely, says Moeletsi Mbeki on BBC’s Today programme. A jet flight across South Africa takes two hours “so there is no way anyone can instigate violence on that scale”. Blame Ramaphosa instead. The ANC has “lost the popular edge” over the decades and chosen to ditch the poor to focus on the black middle class – which Ramaphosa epitomises.

The current president is a decent man, but is “a master at dancing on eggshells”, says Brian Pottinger in UnHerd. Since he became president in 2018, the 68-year-old has shown a “surreal aloofness” in dodging all the tough questions on law, order, land redistribution and ANC in-fighting. This insurrection will be suppressed, but then what – yet another compromise? Or what needs to be done: a bold programme of renewal, splitting the ANC and dumping decades of failed policies. “It is not looking hopeful.”

Listen here to Moeletsi Mbeki on the Today programme, from 2h 50m.