South Africa: The powder keg waiting to explode

Wednesday March 18 2020

Residents of Coronationville, a low-income suburb in Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 7, 2019 hold a joint memorial service for two people shot dead during protests on September 3. PHOTO | MICHELE SPATARI | AFP


“What’s going on?” asked a confused tourist caught up in one of this week’s numerous protester-police clashes that have gripped the length and breadth of South Africa.

He was not the only person asking why this country has seen, in a single week, violent protests and confrontations of various sorts.

Late last week, a confrontation between a local taxi (matatu) driver and an alleged Nigerian drug dealer, in which the South African died of gunshot wounds, escalated into running street battles in Pretoria.

The disturbances rapidly spread, with protesters, looters and arsonists operating on three sides of greater Johannesburg’s flanks – all heavily tinged with xenophobia.

Spasms of rampage, mob looting, violence and confrontations with police left at least five people dead and many businesses looted and burnt.

Meanwhile, violence flared in KwaZulu-Natal province where the government is accused of doing nothing to stop trucks being set ablze as local drivers protest against hiring of foreign workers by trucking companies.



At least 37 trucks have been burnt this week in several centres in the province, leaving security experts and the authorities asking who may be behind what seem to be highly coordinated attacks on one of South Africa’s key arteries - from Africa’s largest and busiest port, Durban, to its commercial heartland of Johannesburg, with trucking links up through the rest of Central and East Africa heavily hit.

And in Cape Town, the World Economic Forum (WEF) Africa summit was severely disrupted by several hundred university and high school students outraged at the rape and murder of yet another young woman, forcing President Cyril Ramaphosa to leave the investor-influencing meeting to deal directly with the protesters.

Around the country, these and various other protests have seemed to go instantly from spark to full-blown expressions of citizens’ rage, with police forced to use rubber bullets, tear gas, stun grenades, water cannons and, in some instance around Johannesburg, live ammunition, to quell the unrest.

Analysts point out that the various incidents of unrest and violence are not directly linked, though there are underlying drivers connecting them.


Student protests in Cape Town around inaction against gender-based violence — SA being among the world’s most heavily afflicted societies — have nothing to do with the xenophobic attacks on truckers and foreign trucker drivers in KwaZulu-Natal, which, in turn, are only tangentially related to the violence on the streets of Pretoria and Johannesburg where xenophobia and opportunist criminality saw hundreds of shops, mostly owned by foreign Africans, looted and burnt.

Xenophobia is nothing new to South Africa, which has seen several outbreaks following the advent of majority rule in 1994, contrary to expectations.

Between 2000 and March 2008, at least 67 people died in what were identified as xenophobic attacks.

In May 2008, a series of similar attacks left 62 people dead, although 21 of those killed were South African citizens.

The latest outbreak of xenophobia has been less bloody but very damaging to South Africa’s reputation at a time when the country cannot afford such a blow, and while President Ramaphosa is trying to instil confidence in the country’s future.


That job has been made much harder by protests, riots, looting and conflicts with police, attempting to re-impose order, running the length and breadth of SA.

Beneath the trigger events of each outbreak of public anger lies a deep reservoir of unresolved issues, resentments and frustrations.

Key issues for average South Africans include high unemployment rate, everyday violence, fears that foreigners are “stealing jobs” and general dissatisfaction with governance that has seen protest numbers hover around 13 per day across the country for the last few years.

Generally referred to here as “service delivery protests”, these outbreaks cover the full gamut: from peaceful expressions of citizen frustrations to raging hoards of violent attackers storming through commercial areas close to or in high-density, low-income suburbs and shanty towns.

Together, they have converged to form a confusing melee — an acting out of pent-up rage.

The troubled tourist trapped, briefly, outside his hotel next to the WEF meeting in Cape Town’s International Convention Centre has not been the only one to have problems understanding what was going on.


Even protest-hardened South Africans who are used to civil action are having a hard time understanding why everything seems to be on the boil, all at the same time.

The short answer is that South Africans, long-enduring by nature, have finally run out of patience.

They want jobs, and they want them now. They want an end to gender-based violence, especially the widespread rape and murder of women, but also violence against children; and they want it stopped now.

They want to feel safe. They want to feel like their government is working for them, rather than in the interests of a select few at the top of the governing party.

The landless want land, and they also want it now. People want a country that is prosperous, where the government actually works for its citizens.

Most South Africans are not racists or xenophobes, but those who are have been using the general mood of unhappiness in the country to push their agendas.

And there are plenty of ordinary criminals – largely due to the high unemployment rate of around 30 per cent – who have taken advantage of the turbulence.


For those out on South Africa’s streets this week, there is one thing that all the different protest actions have in common – the expression of built-up resentments, perhaps obtaining thereby action on the issues activating them.

Among the students, mostly young women, protesting gender violence outside the WEF forum, there was an angry, ugly mood over the rape and murder of a young female student from the University of Cape Town.

As with so many other protests on apparently completely different issues, police were eventually forced to use stun grenades and water cannons to disperse the determined protesters who, for three days running, disrupted that important international gathering.

Ramaphosa has been doing his best to calm the country down, calling for people to help the police stop looting and burning of shops belonging to both foreigners and locals.

He also broke off discussions with WEF leaders to deal with the student protesters, meeting them outside parliament across town to promise action on gender-based violence. But even that did not end the protests.

“We are sick of nothing being done,” yelled one young woman protester outside the WEF venue.


Another protester, this time a male Cape Peninsula University of Technology student, turned to journalists covering the protest, shortly after police had used stun grenades to disrupt another sortie by protesters determined to get into the venue to completely close down the summit, saying: “We’ve had enough and we aren’t going to stop until something is done.”

But what exactly could be done to satisfy the demands being made was not clear beyond a need both for South Africans to be allowed to let off a built-up head of steam, and for the government to be seen to be getting down to the serious business of rebuilding a country that is economically, socially and politically fraying at the edges at an alarming rate.