by SAVIOUS KWINIKA
JOHANNESBURG – DEPENDING on which side of the fence you sit on, the fatal violence gripping South Africa is the factionalism of Africa’s oldest liberation movement spilling into the streets or an explosion of a long-ticking time bomb in a country denounced as the most unequal in the world.
The country has degenerated into mayhem days after former president, Jacob Zuma, last Wednesday handed himself over to police to begin his 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court.
The sentence imposed late in June was over his defiance of an order by the Constitutional Court to testify before a commission probing corruption that allegedly rampant during his presidency (2009 to 2018).
While he is no longer head of state, the veteran politician (79) remains the most divisive political figure and still wields enormous influence in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), the party credited with dismantling apartheid, leading to freedom in 1994.
His ouster from the presidency, which led to the ascendancy of current head of state and party, Cyril Ramaphosa, has left the party at its most factionalised state since formation in 1912.
The jailing of Zuma, as well as the suspension from the party of officials seen as sympathetic to him was not only always going to be destructive to party unity but also to the nation of some 60 million people, a majority of them struggling under its worst economic crisis.
The violence, characterised by massive looting of shopping malls, massive destruction of property, infrastructure and human life loss as well as sabotage had Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal as its epicentre.
Like veldfire, it has spread rapidly to the economic hub of Gauteng, starting at areas largely populated by members of Zuma’s ethnic Zulu clan, who are a majority in the Southern African country.
Ramaphosa has further stoked tensions by blaming “ethnic mobilisation” for what has emerged the worst civil unrest in independent South Africa.
John Steenhuisen, the leader of the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), blamed the divisions tearing the ANC apart for the orgy of looting and destruction.
“It is no secret that leaders of the pro-Zuma faction, as well as others with aligned interests, have been fanning the flames on social media with impunity,” he said after witnessing the carnage in KwaZulu-Natal.
Most of the more than 70 people that have been killed and over 1 200 arrested following the violence.
The unrest on Tuesday night spread to the provinces of Mpumalanga and Northern Cape.
DA has laid criminal charges against the former president’s children, Duduzane Zuma and Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, as well as Julius Malema, leader of the other opposition party, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).
“Our society is already a powder keg and we cannot afford any more of these incendiary sparks,” Steenhuisen said.
Mzwanele Manyi, Zuma’s spokesperson, playing the factionalism card.
“Our country can be far better off with President Ramaphosa released from his responsibility as President of South Africa. He has dismally failed to lead,” Manyi said.
But as politicians apportioned blame, the country was burning, literally.
In the KwaZulu-Natal capital, Pietermaritzburg, where Zuma’s legal team sought the courts to rescind his sentence, smoke was still swirling from burning buildings on Tuesday night.
Retailers have lost an estimated R2 billion (US$136,67 million) goods, services and property because of looting. The rand currency lost 3 percent of its value on Tuesday.
The country’s COVID-19 vaccination exercise, already behind schedule partly as a result of government bundling was halted amid the violence.
In the hotspot areas of KwaZulu-Natal, panic buying set in at the shops that were lucky to be operational. The panic buying of basic commodities followed shortages as most retailers remained closed or looted.
Delivery trucks failed to supply as these areas resembled war zones and thus no-go areas.
However, the criminal nature of the upheaval indicated this was more than just pro-Zuma protests or ANC factionalism.
Among the looters, were children of primary-school age and the elderly women. Mothers strewn with children on their backs joined in the free-for-all.
Women helped themselves mostly to basics such as foodstuffs and clothes. Men went off with furniture appliances including television sets and refrigerators. Men and women looted beds out of shops.
Alcohol was a favourite among looters, with the country enduring a fourth prohibition of alcohol sales, the latest imposed over a fortnight ago to curb the COVID-19 third wave.
Law enforcers at most malls watched helpless as mobs outnumbered them.
The smell of rubber bullets permeated the air, competing with fumes from some burning properties.
The extent to which young and old risked life and limb and braved the chilly winter nights and mornings to perpetuate looting sprees laid bare the hunger, poverty and restlessness that have over the years threatened to detonate.
The arrest of Zuma and tightened COVID-19 lockdown were only a powder keg. They provided trigger.
“We are struggling to make ends meet. We battle for food. Employment opportunities are scarce,” a woman, declining to be named, said during a looting spree at a mall in Soweto.
Confined to their homes during the lockdown, most South Africans have been left astounded by revelations from the televised probe into the so-called State Capture, a period of massive corruption fuelled by members of a now-fugitive influential Gupta family.
A commission presiding over the probe has heard how millions were paid to line the pockets of a political elite, leaving a majority subjected to grinding poverty.
“The politicians can afford to impose a lockdown because they and their families have all the luxury. For, just a day without an income is disastrous,” said a middle-aged man, searing under the weight of his loot consisting of alcohol, maize meal and some sneakers.
Among the looters were drivers of the latest luxurious cars, used to ferry the spoils of the vandalism.
This either indicated the pinch felt even by among those seen as well-to-do or was testament the looting sprees were merely criminal acts and not linked to the prevailing political and economic problems.
Amid questions over the police and army’s effectiveness in quelling the unrest, groups of civilians have been mobilising into vigilantes to protect local malls and facilities.
Calls are mounting for the imposition of a state of emergency.
One of the vigilante groups is in Pimville, Soweto, where the iconic Maponya Mall is located. It is arguably the only shipping mall in Soweto to survive looting.
“We are here to protect and defend the township economy. We are coming out in numbers,” said Nhlanhla Lux, speaking on behalf of the group.
The informal economy is the major employer in a country that has struggled to provide jobs to increasingly hopeless youths.
Siobhan Redford, an economist, bemoaned the turmoil would result in shops closing down permanently, in a country that can ill-afford the loss of further jobs.
Ramaphosa in his address this week vowed his government would “defeat those who seek to destabilise our country, who seek to reverse the gains we have made.”
“We will stand as one people, united against violence, unanimous in our commitment to peace and to the rule of law,” Ramaphosa said.
– CAJ News