The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deadly riots in South Africa are a ‘huge tremor’ for Africa’s most renowned liberation party

Debris in the aftermath of unrest at the Chris Hani Mall in Vosloorus, Johannesburg, on July 15. (Gulshan Khan for The Washington Post)

CAPE TOWN — When Cyril Ramaphosa took the helm of the African National Congress, Africa’s most storied political party and the embodiment of the liberation legacy of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, he promised to reverse the misrule that had allowed deep race and class divides to fester more than two decades into Black-majority rule.

Instead, those divisions have become more entrenched. Last week, bitter disenchantment coursed through the streets of two South African provinces, taking the form of riots, looting and widespread arson that claimed more than 330 lives and damaged or destroyed 40,000 businesses.

But while Ramaphosa acknowledged his own failings, he laid blame for the lawlessness on a rival faction within the ANC that is closely aligned with former president Jacob Zuma, who was jailed this month after being found in contempt of court for repeatedly refusing to participate in a sprawling inquiry into corruption during his nine years as president. Government officials have announced the arrest of at least six “instigators” in the riots but haven’t revealed their identities, saying that doing so would “jeopardize investigations.”

Those behind the violence, Ramaphosa said, intended to “severely weaken — or even dislodge — the democratic state.” He added, “We know who they are.”

‘I am broken’: South African communities are gutted by a wave of looting, arson and loss

Chroniclers of the ANC say the violence, whether backed by the Zuma faction or not, gives Ramaphosa the clearest path any South African leader has yet had to cleave the storied political party in two, which might be the only way to reverse its decline. The party may be at its weakest point, but the violence will only embolden Ramaphosa, they said.

“This is not a crisis that is going to waste. He is riding this thing,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst and author of “Ramaphosa’s Turn.” “You had to reach a point of climax between the factions where there is no point of return. This is a huge tremor within the ANC.”

Zuma’s increasing ignominy has generally increased Ramaphosa’s clout within the party, even if Zuma retains fervent support among some South Africans, particularly ethnic Zulus in Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal province, where last week’s violence was worst. The riots further diminish the Zuma faction’s standing, Mathekga said.

“Those people have been so morally obliterated,” he said. “They burned down the country.”

Ramaphosa is able to draw on a deep well of resentment toward Zuma, especially in the support base he already has with middle-class Black South Africans. Over nearly a decade in power — more than a third of the post-apartheid period — Zuma was accused of so thoroughly selling out the state through corrupt practices that policy became tied to the wants of the highest bidders. Ramaphosa has said that losses from “state capture” amount to more than $34 billion.

Spokesmen for the ANC and the office of the president did not answer questions about the rift in the party.

Extremely high unemployment, national debt and multiple recessions have stagnated the economy, and less than a year after voters gave Ramaphosa a mandate in mid-2019, the coronavirus pandemic hit South Africa hard. Battles within the party have stymied economic reform efforts involving state-run industries and land redistribution.

Ramaphosa “went into the presidency thinking that he could re-create that ‘Mandela moment’ where the nation got together and saw him as the leader to take them out of a difficult time, which was the Zuma-era of state capture and corruption,” said Ray Hartley, author of “Ramaphosa: The Man Who Would Be King.”

Instead, Hartley said, Ramaphosa has realized that a “purge” is needed, and the recent violence may provide the pretext.

“Ramaphosa is pushing the whole conspiracy theory because it criminalizes his opponents in the ANC,” he said.

Even ANC insiders acknowledge that without reform, the party will continue to lose its grip on power and the country’s ills will spill out onto the streets with greater frequency.

In 2016 local elections, the ANC lost control over most of South Africa’s biggest urban areas. In the 2019 voting that saw Ramaphosa elected, the ANC won less than 60 percent of parliamentary seats, its worst showing ever. Voter turnout was also at its lowest ever.

The party’s biggest support base is in rural communities where patronage networks have tied people’s economic prospects to their closeness to party cadres who control access to jobs.

The urban poor who took part in last week’s looting aren’t likely to be Ramaphosa supporters, said Moeletsi Mbeki, deputy chairman of the South African Institute of International Affairs and younger brother of former president Thabo Mbeki, who was ousted from the party leadership by Zuma in 2007. Taking strong action against them and supposed ringleaders allows Ramaphosa to strengthen his hand within the party and play to his own base, Mbeki argued.

“Ramaphosa is insisting this is an insurrection because he wants to be given a free hand to suppress the urban poor and to use more force against the urban poor,” he said. “He wants to legitimize the use of force against the Black urban population. The ANC doesn’t need their vote, it’ll win based on the rural vote.”

If Ramaphosa can succeed in delegitimizing the rival faction — or if courts prove his government’s allegations right — he’ll probably ensure an additional term for himself in which reforms, especially post-pandemic, could be more viable. And ultimately, given the ANC’s firm hold on power at the national level, Zuma allies will have to come around.

“ANC members hate each other,” Mathekga said, “but they hate being out of power more.”

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