Unrest In South Africa: A Deeper Malaise – OpEd


Even as the world observed the Nelson Mandela Day on Sunday, South Africa had not yet recovered from the unrest and large-scale violence which engulfed the country in the past few days. The arson and looting broke out amid a surge in the COVID-19 case load, following the incarceration of former South African President Jacob Zuma on 7 July. The unrest, which already took a toll of more than 212 people, has been largely reported from Mr. Zuma’s home province KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, where the country’s most important cities—Johannesburg and Pretoria—are located. Almost 95 per cent of the people of Indian origin (PIO) are living in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The fact that the attacks were mainly concentrated on the Indian diaspora and their business concerns adds to the worry that the unrest turned out to be ‘racial.’ 

Analysing the security situation in the country, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that the events unfolding were “nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack.” He acknowledged that of the 212 people killed, 180 have been in KwaZulu-Natal and 32 in Gauteng. According to the reports compiled by agencies, extensive damage was caused to “161 malls and shopping centres, 11 warehouses, 8 factories and 161 liquor outlets and distributors.  This does not include the damage caused to roads and other infrastructure.” President Cyril also admitted that there were attempts to “inflame racial tensions and violence” pointing to the targeted attacks on the PIO.  

The unrest turned out to be the worst nightmare for the Indian community, who were ‘devastated’ by the  bloodshed and destruction as testified by Shameen Thakur-Rajbansi, a member of the KwaZulu-Natal provincial legislature and the chief of South Africa’s Minority Front (MF). KwaZulu-Natal is a province with nearly seven per cent of the population of Indian origin. 

The Indian diaspora in South Africa constitutes around 1.6 million which is about 3 per cent of South Africa’s total population. According to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, About 80 per cent of the Indian community lives in the province of KwaZulu Natal, about 15 per cent in the Gauteng (previously Transvaal) area and the remaining 5 per cent in Cape Town. The Indian diaspora is reported to have adequate representation in government, business, media, legal and other professions. 

Gandhi, South Africa and India 

Indians recall that it was in KwaZulu Natal that Mahatma Gandhi set in motion a non-violent resistance against racial discrimination and oppression. It was in the same province that Gandhi was forcibly removed from the first-class compartment of a train and thrown off the white-privileged carriage. He had to spend the night in the station’s waiting room at Pietermaritzburg. This episode triggered his thoughts on the racial issues and helped mould his philosophy of Satyagraha (truth-force).  

After six decades of assassination, on 30 January 2010, Gandhi’s ashes that had been kept by a friend of his family were scattered off the coast of Durban in KwaZulu Natal in a ceremony of some 200 people. Reports said that the government of India officials and the South African navy had joined the ceremony. Ironically, after five years, Gandhi was characterised as a ‘racist’ by some sections in South Africa and Ghana—arguing that some of his remarks in the notes he had written in 1893 and 1904 were amounting to ‘racial tones.’ This was triggered by the work by Ashwin Desai and Goolam Vahed—The South African Gandhi: Stretcher-Bearer of Empire—who argued that “throughout his stay on African soil, stayed true to Empire while showing a disdain for Africans.” 

In his article on this issue, E.S. Reddy, a former Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Director of the UN Centre against Apartheid, said that Nelson Mandela had dismissed such characterisations much before, who had referred to Gandhi as the “hero of both India and South Africa.” Way back in 1995, Mandela wrote that “Gandhi must be forgiven those prejudices and judged in the context of the time and circumstances. We are looking here at the young Gandhi, still to become Mahatma, when he was without any human prejudice save that in favour of truth and justice.”  According to Reddy,  “Many other African and African American leaders, as well as leaders of other movements for freedom and peace, acknowledged that they derived inspiration from Gandhi. None of them were distracted or disturbed by the statements made by the young Gandhi.” 

Mahatma Gandhi’s granddaughter Ela Gandhi reported that the Phoenix Settlement launched by Gandhi in 1903 remained unaffected by the current violence and looting in the townships nearby. She said that this was an area where all sections of the population were working together for long. Mahatma Gandhi had started his Indian Opinion in the Settlement in the same year Phoenix was set up. It was a shocking news that Gandhi’s house in the province—Sarvodya—was blazed in a communal riot in 1985. The house was later rebuilt with the Government of India’s support. 

While widespread violence continued in the PIO concentrated provinces after Zuma’s arrest, the Government of India took up the matter with the South African government. Reports said that India’s Minister of External Affairs Jaishankar spoke to his South African counterpart, Foreign Minister  Naledi Pandor while Sanjay Bhattacharya, Secretary, MEA  also had a meeting with the South African high commissioner to India Joel Sibusiso Ndebele. Meanwhile, Indian-origin sections in the riots-affected provinces organised armed groups to defend their families and businesses. A medical practitioner admitted that they were “forced to buy weapons and organise defence groups to protect our neighbourhoods.” Sensing the danger of a communal twist of incidents, Zulu King Misuzulu KaZwelithini appealed to his nation “to live in peace with the Indian community.” “What’s happening between us and the Indians, with immediate effect, must come to an end. Our Indian brothers are our neighbours … Embrace the Indians … ” the King said. 

Smouldering Discontent 

The events leading to the unrest started with the arrest of Mr. Zuma who was president of South Africa during 2009-2018. That was the period when alleged corruption escalated in government and the ruling African National Congress. After he stepped down, a government-mandated commission began investigating these corruption charges, but Mr. Zuma declined to testify, notwithstanding an order from South Africa’s Constitutional Court. On June 29, the court sentenced him to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, and he was later arrested. While Mr Zuma continued to deny wrongdoing, protests began against his arrest which turned into widespread violence and looting. 

According to different sources, Indians were being targeted because of Mr. Zuma’s connection with an influential Saharanpur-origin business family, the Guptas, who were seen as primarily responsible for corruption charges against the Zuma dispensation.  The Gupta family began their businesses in the 1990s when South Africa witnessed political transition with the release of anti-apartheid leader Mandela. Since then the Guptas expanded their business from a small retail shoe outlet to a massive business empire spreading to multiple sectors, from information technology, mining to media.

According to the African National Congress (ANC), the poor people had to bear the brunt of the unrest following the pro-Zuma protests.   Zuma is accused of corruption in a $2 billion dollar arms deal. He was  also accused of helping the three brothers of the Indian-origin Gupta family i.e. Atul, Ajay, and Rajesh Gupta in robbing State resources and pushing influence over the government.  Following the corruption scam, a South African court had frozen the assets of the Gupta family and their associate, Iqbal Meer Sharma. The Investigating Directorate (ID) of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of South Africa had also asked Interpol to issue Red Notice International Arrest Warrants for Atul Gupta, Rajesh Gupta, and their families.  The accused were reported to be in self-exile in Dubai and therefore South Africa was reported to have sent extradition papers to both India and the UAE.

Growing Ties with India 

Being partners in transregional entities like BRICS, IBSA, IOR-ARC etc, India does not want its bilateral relations with South Africa to get affected by the internal unrest though the Indian diaspora’s well-being is a sensitive issue. The two countries have already a vibrant trade relations.  According to diplomatic sources Indian business has significant position in South Africa with an investment of over $8-9 billion. The main areas of India’s engagement include pharmaceutical, IT, automobile, banking and mining, but there are other sectors where Indian firms are doing equally good business.  The India Business Forum is a platform of 90 business houses in South Africa who use it for frequent interactions. High Commissioner of India is the Chief Patron of this Forum. The major Indian companies in South Africa are TATAs, Sun Pharma, Dr. Reddys, Mahindra & Mahindra, L&T, Jindal, Vedanta, TCS, WIPRO, Infosys, Tech Mahindra, HCL, Zensar, Nihilent, State Bank of India, ICICI Bank, Bank of Baroda, EXIM Bank, Bank of India, Canara Bank among others. It is therefore natural that any internal unrest is a matter of concern for India also, particularly in areas where the people of Indian origin have a high concentration.  

A Deeper Malaise 

Condemning the recent violence in South Africa, Zulu King Misuzulu Ka Zwelithini said that what was “even more saddening is that so many of those who are drawn to lawlessness and criminality are members of the Zulu nation. It has brought shame upon us.” He said that “the desperation born of poverty and unemployment which lures people, especially our youth, to join this chaos. But I must appeal to all of us to take a step back and consider the damage being done through our own actions.” 

South African analyst William Gumede said that the “continued violence in KwaZulu-Natal appears well-planned.” According to him, “In KwaZulu-Natal, it’s well-coordinated, well-funded. Strategic commercial hubs were blocked, strategic roads were blocked at key points.” Eusebius McKaiser, a political observer, says “the unrest is a symptom of much deeper economic and political problems, which go to the heart of the ANC-run South African state.” Official statistics revealed that almost half of South Africans now live below the official poverty line and unemployment stood at a record 32.6 per cent in the first three months of 2021, further accentuated by COVID-19. This rate was 46.3 per cent among young people aged 15–34 years, implying that almost one in every two young people in the labour force did not have a job in the first quarter of 2021. 

According to Mohammed Jameel Abdulla who works at Tshisimani Centre for Activist Education in Cape Town, reports from various sources indicate that the riots were probably “made up of multiple forces.”  While initial reports showed that “political agents of the pro-Zuma faction” ANC was involved “to fight their battle against President Cyril Ramaphosa,” there were other forces who indulged in targeted attacks on supply chains, factories etc. Abdulla writes: 

“Others involved are not politically linked to a factional ANC agenda or desire to destabilize the country. They are there because the moment has presented families with access to food under dire circumstances and the opportunity for temporary relief from the dredges of poverty. One may say that their situation is being purposefully manipulated by political agendas, but the material reality of their situation is no less real. Individuals from well-known working class organizations that are strongly anti-ANC in all forms have reported taking part in looting as the moment allowed for sorely needed aid to struggling communities.”  

He further said that “with any mass gathering, there are simply those criminal elements who use the moment with malicious intent, stirred by past and present grudges, looking to impose power and fear on those they see as ‘other.’  Abdulla also reminds that 

“the material conditions of South Africa indicate that it’s been ripe for mass political uprising for years now. With grants cut under lockdown, youth unemployment over 70%, service delivery a mess or none existent, trust in government, media and political parties at record lows—there seems to be meagre hope for South Africans on the wrong side of the poverty line—and very little to lose. Whether it’s an orchestrated plot by devious political agendas, a student throwing poop on a colonial statue or an increase in bread prices as was seen in South America—a spark is all that’s needed to set alight a desperate people.” 

International financial and development agencies have already given a dismal picture about the ailing economy of South Africa. According to International Monetary Fund, the most affected sectors include “construction, personal services, trade, catering, hospitality, transport, storage, and communications. The crisis also brought manufacturing and mining to a halt.” IMF also noted that “job losses were felt most among women and manual labour. Those at the bottom of the income distribution have suffered a great deal.” IMF also projected “a loss in government revenue of $18.2 billion this year.” The World Bank says that “South Africa remains a dual economy with one of the highest, persistent inequality rates in the world.” According to the Bank, “High inequality is perpetuated by a legacy of exclusion and the nature of economic growth, which is not pro-poor and does not generate sufficient jobs. Inequality in wealth is even higher and intergenerational mobility is low meaning inequalities are passed down from generation to generation with little change over time.” OECD estimated that the “COVID-19 pandemic caused millions of workers to lose their jobs, while the number of discouraged workers increased. Investment has been on a downward path already prior to the crisis, marred by policy uncertainty, lack of infrastructure leading for example to electricity shortages and lacklustre government financial prospects.” 

Thus, the challenges before President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ruling ANC are formidable. The most immediate tasks include restoring basic services to the people. The Government noted that “torching of municipal assets, infrastructure and properties that accompanied the protests and looting…led to the affected municipalities not being able to render basic services to communities.” It also said that the “violent and disruptive incidents bear major implications for local government operations especially planning and budgeting in respect of the costs of repairing or replacing assets which places further strain on limited financial resources that were intended to expand and better service delivery.” Moreover, “significant communications infrastructure has been vandalised, including network towers in some parts of the country…The telecommunications sector has been plagued by the destruction of network towers, resulting in network operators incurring billions of rands in replacements  costs,” according to the Government sources.  All this underlines the fact that the present government is burdened with too many responsibilities, which also urgently call for restoring inter-communal peace and harmony especially in sensitive provinces like KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. 

The article also forms part of the GSC Dossier

The author is Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala who also served as dean and professor of International Relations, MGU.  He can be contacted at [email protected] 

K.M. Seethi

K.M. Seethi, ICSSR Senior Fellow, is Academic Advisor to the International Centre for Polar Studies (ICPS) and Director, Inter University Centre for Social Science Research and Extension (IUCSSRE), Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala, India. He was earlier Professor of International Relations and Dean of Social Sciences, MGU.

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