The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Africa’s riots are a warning to the world

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Every country presents its own studies in contrast, but South Africa offers some of the starkest. The celebrated “rainbow nation,” defined by its generational struggle for racial equality, is the global poster child of economic inequality, where deep poverty sits in the shadow of astronomical wealth. The post-apartheid republic is built on what’s arguably the world’s most liberal and modern constitution, but is also hobbled by age-old problems of corruption, state failure, tribalism and cronyism.

The recent riots in the country’s two most populous provinces reflect, in many aspects, a uniquely South African tragedy. But lurking within the scenes of looting and violence, which saw at least 212 people killed amid the worst unrest since the end of apartheid in 1994, is a broader global parable. What happened in South Africa is what happens when the gross inequality that shapes a whole society boils over. And it’s also what happens when a major political faction and influential leader prioritize their own interests over the integrity of their country’s democracy.

The immediate trigger for the unrest at the beginning of last week was the jailing of Jacob Zuma, the former South African president now implicated in a sprawling inquiry into allegations of bribery and corruption under his tenure. Zuma was held in contempt of court and sentenced to 15 months in prison for his repeated refusal to participate in the trial’s proceedings.

Government officials labeled what followed as an “insurrection,” with protests led by Zuma’s supporters spiraling into full-blown riots in townships in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces (home to the major urban centers of Johannesburg and Durban, respectively). Major highways were blocked, trucks burned, shops and even schools and medical offices ransacked. The army was deployed, but the upheaval still wreaked more than $1 billion in damage and led to scores being killed amid stampedes and clashes with police and vigilantes.

Even as the dust settles, there’s the prospect of further pain. Hunger and food shortages in some areas were a problem before the riots — thanks, in part, to coronavirus lockdowns as the delta variant surges through the country — but now risk being exacerbated by the havoc. And for what?

“The killings, as well as the widespread destruction of small, uninsured businesses in townships, underscores the bitter irony of this wave of violence born of anger at inequality: Most of its victims are the poor and dispossessed, and many are ethnic Zulus, members of the same tribe from which former president Jacob Zuma draws his most fervent support,” wrote my colleagues Hlengiwe Motaung, Max Bearak and Gulshan Khan.

“Inequality and joblessness” — youth unemployment is at a record 74 percent — “have turned South Africa into a pressure cooker,” they added.

In the carnage’s aftermath, President Cyril Ramaphosa called for unity and vowed to punish those who stoked the unrest. But his efforts appeared to analysts as mere window-dressing at a moment when the country’s structural failings are coming to the surface. The egalitarian promise of the post-apartheid state has given way to a society still riven by class divides.

“Since 1994 the state has overseen serial failures in ensuring reparation, restitution, redistribution and prosecution,” noted a statement from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “Inequality has spiraled. The discarded and the despairing live their lives with conspicuous consumption in full view.” (In a somewhat poignant irony, Sunday in South Africa happened to mark the national day honoring the former president and legendary anti-apartheid activist.)

“Who we are is a nation faced by crippling socioeconomic conditions as the economy continues to flounder in this ever-changing global economy,” wrote Ron Derby, editor in chief of the Mail and Guardian newspaper. “This week’s looting under the guise of protests may not be a true reflection of us, but are a harbinger of a world to come,” he added. “The only fear is that our particular brand of politics has no answers to ward it off.”

That same issue is being raised in other parts of the world. In recent years, anger over entrenched inequity and the increasing distance between political and corporate elites and the rest of society has convulsed democratic politics from Latin America to Europe to the Middle East. The pandemic has only intensified these tensions, launching new protest movements in places as disparate as Colombia and Thailand. For some commentators, the upheavals expose the underlying fragility of liberal democracies the world over.

“Events in [South Africa] demonstrate in a particularly acute fashion a phenomenon we are witnessing in different ways and in degrees of severity across the globe: the old order breaking down, with little to fill the void but sectarian movements or identity politics,” wrote Observer columnist Kenan Malik.

Analysts elsewhere have also warned about the toxic, corrosive impact that economic inequality has on a country’s politics and society writ large. “Over the long run, inequality has created a vicious circle,” noted University of Oxford professor Diego Sánchez-Ancochea. “Large income gaps between the poor and the wealthy have been one of the drivers of violence, one of the reasons that Latin America is the region with the highest homicide rate in the world. The violence is concentrated in low-income neighborhoods, creating anxiety and personal insecurity and discouraging inward investment, which might create jobs and improve services.”

A similar dynamic is at play in South Africa. But the problem revealed by the riots isn’t just about inequity. Zuma and his loyalists are engaged in a political struggle within the African National Congress, which has been in power since the fall of apartheid and whose internal frictions dictate the course of national politics. “This is a clear political campaign, and therein lies its power and danger,” wrote historian Benjamin Fogel in the left-wing Jacobin magazine. “It is targeting South African democracy itself and is being led by a faction of the ruling party that is willing to quite literally burn the country down to accomplish its aims.”

Again, in the current moment, that’s a phenomenon that is hardly unique on the world stage. Critics of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro accuse the far-right leader of assailing the country’s democratic institutions amid mounting inquiries into his alleged misrule. Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed his country to a constitutional breaking point in his bid to maintain power. And in the United States, there’s every indication that the falsehoods told by former president Donald Trump about his electoral defeat — and the insurrectionary violence it provoked — have lost none of their potency.

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