It was six days in hell, said Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, councilor of Soweto, South Africa’s largest township. For six days, Dlamini and a few other residents defended the Maponya Mall, one of the largest malls in Soweto, and arguably the only one not ravaged by looters in the past week. Probably tens of thousands of shops, factories and logistics centers had been destroyed in the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, especially the township of Soweto and the coastal city of Durban.
It was the worst wave of violence South Africa has seen since the end of apartheid nearly 30 years ago, killing 212 and arresting more than 3,000 violent criminals. The damage is in the billions of euros and in some regions food and petrol are still scarce.
President Cyril Ramaphosa visited the affected areas over the weekend and met those who are now cleaning up or defending their businesses. During the president’s visit, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini told the news portal news24: Many young people who took part in the looting have now apologized. “Their heads have been infiltrated.” An “unknown enemy” incited people in the townships to loot. The big question is whether the enemy is actually unknown. Or is it an old friend? Isn’t the violence mainly the result of the escalating power struggle within the ruling ANC?
The president speaks of an attempted coup
President Ramaphosa called the riots and looting a “targeted, coordinated and well-planned attack on democracy”. In the end, it was an attempt to “topple over”. He didn’t give names. One of his closest associates spoke of twelve suspects who allegedly contributed to the coordination of the unrest. Those began Thursday, the day after former President Jacob Zuma began serving his 15-month prison term.
Zuma had refused to appear before a commission of inquiry into corruption during his tenure. In his nine years at the helm of the state, he and his clique had stolen billions and looted state-owned companies such as the energy company Eskom and the airline South African Airways. Zuma has many followers, especially in his home region of KwaZulu-Natal, some love his folk style, others benefit from his patronage network, from small or large donations.
On Thursday, his supporters set fire to trucks on the highway to Johannesburg. Then the looting started. In the beginning there were only small shops, the targets grew and so did the number of looters. There were real traffic jams for logistics centers in the Durban area as so many came by bus and taxi to empty the shops.
“Not sporadically and not spontaneously”
“You can see that this operation was planned by people who have done this before. It is not sporadic and not spontaneous. So there are suspicions that people have been paid,” said Zizi Kodwa, deputy minister of state security. The procedure reminds him of the tactics of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed arm of the ANC, which tried to destabilize the state with attacks during the apartheid era. The Liberation Struggle Veterans Association is one of President Zuma’s staunchest supporters. The veterans had already warned in December that Zuma must be handled with care, otherwise a “coup d’état” could take place.
The violence of last week is now getting pretty close. Not only was it looted, but the state’s infrastructure was deliberately destroyed: more than 100 cell towers were attacked, water treatment plants, hospitals and at least 30 schools were attacked. South African media outlets have identified numerous WhatsApp groups in which Zuma calls for violence against people near Zuma and provides detailed targets.
The planned riots eventually spiraled out of control as more and more people joined the looters. Because they didn’t have enough to eat. Or because they wanted a television like the neighbor had just brought in.
Meanwhile, there also seems to be a hangover mood among many looters, the scale of the violence was shocking and also terrifying for many South Africans. Before the riots started, the ANC is said to have considered negotiating an early release or house arrest for Zuma, which now seems unthinkable. “You can’t discuss this while the country is on fire,” a senior ANC official told the weekly Mail & Guardian.
On Monday, a corruption trial against Zuma was renegotiated. These are crucial days for South Africa, the question is whether the culture of impunity that has plagued the country for years will end. In recent years, President Cyril Ramaphosa has embarked on an arduous process of rebuilding the police and prosecutor’s office, which had been systematically eroded under Zuma to allow undisturbed looting of the country.
Some people from Zuma are still part of the authorities and government and have not yet given up the fight. State Security Minister Ayanda Dlodlo said there had been no coup attempt and that criminals had hijacked a legitimate problem. She belongs to the Zumas camp and is still in the cabinet, mainly because President Ramaphosa does not want to endanger the unity of the ANC and free the country from corruption. The question is whether he can continue to make such concessions in the future. Otherwise, the ANC may not fall apart, but the whole country will.