28 July 2021
Back when former president Jacob Zuma still seemed a hero and a mensch, when South Africans still thanked him for bringing peace to the KwaZulu-Natal province in the 1990s, for taming the HIV epidemic in the 2000s, and for inspiring millions with his rags-to-presidency life story – he reportedly scoffed at biographers and journalists looking to document his rise.
‘Why should anyone write about me? I’m just an ordinary person,’ Zuma is known to have told reporters.
The humble-brag was perfect for his persona, that of a down-to-earth Zulu boy who never forgot his roots and who also happened to be a former detainee at Robben Island prison and close comrade of Nelson Mandela.
Today, by contrast, Zuma’s joke seems absurd. Over the past two weeks JZ Msholozi, as he’s also known, has graduated from the familiar archetype of the two-bit fraudster-politician, to the inspiration behind by far the most intense military insurrection in the nation’s almost three decades of democracy.
Zuma’s financial crimes are globally well-known. First, his administration, from 2009 to 2018, allegedly misappropriated at least $3.4 billion through corruption.
Armed supporters amassed outside Zuma’s mansion, vowing civil war if the South African government complied with the constitution – much like the January 6 protestors who stormed the Capitol
Second, he reportedly facilitated the capture of South Africa’s investigative police, treasury, and state-owned enterprises by the ultra-wealthy Gupta family, who South Africans call ‘tenderpreneurs’ – people who make their billions via improperly-awarded government tenders.
Third, that he allegedly stonewalled the judicial commission of inquiry – set up to look into allegations of state capture and fraud – that he himself had appointed, resulting in a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court.
So on 7 July, the midnight deadline set by the Constitutional Court for Zuma’s arrest approached. Armed supporters amassed outside Zuma’s mansion, vowing civil war if the South African government complied with the constitution – much like the 6 January protesters who stormed the US Capitol.
News that Zuma had voluntarily entered police custody just before midnight, supposedly to try to avert bloodshed, turned out to provide false reassurance. What then looked like spontaneous rioting followed, but analysts now think there was a planned destabilization campaign.
As the magazine New Frame noted, the choice of targets for burning or shutting down this week did not suggest random unrest, but rather planned sabotage: the N3 highway providing the main link between Pretoria and Johannesburg and the Durban harbour; malls and shopping centers; warehouses; factories; cellphone towers; supply routes to Durban’s large oil refinery; and community radio stations.
As for the wreckage, over 200 malls and shopping centres were targeted by looters who varied from the conspicuously desperate to the blatantly opportunistic. One notable feature of these ‘food riots’ was the wildly variant response of the South African Police Service.
In provinces with the greatest support for the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa – like Mpumalanga and Northwest – police rapidly repressed any riots. By contrast, in Zuma-supporting areas, like KZN and parts of Gauteng, they stayed away, raising questions about to what degree regional security structures may have been captured by the Zuma faction.
On 13 July, State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo and Police Minister Bheki Cele announced that the security services had foiled additional attacks, including one on an ANC provincial office, an electrical substation, and a prison. The Daily Maverick also reported that 12 intelligence operatives loyal to Zuma were “>under national police investigation for fomenting insurrection; six of these have since been arrested. Leaked WhatsApp messages published by the Maverick appear to show senior Zuma-supporting intelligence operatives discussing strategies to maximize chaos.
If, as commentators have speculated, the aim of the insurrection was to provoke the government into killing civilians, thus prompting the African National Congress to remove Ramaphosa as party leader and president and allowing the Zuma faction to regain control, then that putsch has failed.
Spontaneous community-organized cleanups are underway in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and Johannesburg. A week after the riots began, the N3 highway was reopened. Nevertheless, with the police absent, armed community security groups in KZN still maintain neighbourhood checkpoints. The refinery that supplies a third of the country’s petroleum and the port itself remain shut. Food shortages loom; Durban customers “>stand in line to to buy food in the few open supermarkets.
In the short term, it is hard to imagine how the recent mayhem benefits Zuma or his cronies. Indeed, Ramaphosa’s position within the ANC seems set to strengthen.
However, the uprising has revealed the country to be a tinderbox. With 75 per cent youth unemployment and the world’s worst inequality, one thing that has become clear is that addressing the Rainbow’s Nation’s economic ills can no longer be delayed. In the months ahead, South Africa’s government will need international solidarity, both in defending the democratic gains of the anti-apartheid movement, and in ameliorating the unjust economic conditions that sustain its instability.
Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood won a Lambda Literary Award. He writes for the South African newspaper, The Daily Maverick; teaches Creative Nonfiction at Susquehanna University; and is currently a 2021-22 Fulbright US Scholar in Mamelodi, South Africa. He writes here in his personal capacity.
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