Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Tensions on the rise in South Africa. Violent protests have been taking place in the country in recent weeks and attracting international attention. Hundreds of people died, and thousands were injured during clashes between protesters and police, which began in early July after the arrest of former President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, accused of corruption by the Congress. Added to the political rivalry between Zuma’s supporters and enemies, there are also popular demands for improvements and reforms amid the serious economic crisis that hurts the country since the beginning of the new coronavirus pandemic.
In 2018, Jacob Zuma, then South African president, was forced to resign by the Congress after several impeachment attempts due to serious corruption allegations. The then vice president, Cyril Ramaphosa, rose to power, remaining as president to this day. At the time, South Africa was already going through an economic crisis, with around 30% of the population unemployed, but Zuma still had strong popular support, with his government being characterized by a socialist and populist orientation that pleased the South African people.
Fighting the legacy of his predecessor, Ramaphosa promised to implement a broad anti-corruption policy, but failed to promote social reforms that would improve the country’s economic condition. The continuation of the economic crisis had a devastating effect with the emergence of the new coronavirus pandemic in 2020, which had an even greater impact on South African social structures, destabilizing small and medium-sized enterprises and increasing poverty and hunger rates.
Due to the terrible living conditions in the country’s constant crisis, the South African people have accumulated several dissatisfactions with the Ramaphosa government. In parallel, a nostalgia for the Zuma times began to emerge, leading to an increase in popular support for the return of the former president. The situation remained reasonably stable for many months, but chaos erupted when Zuma was ordered to be arrested after refusing to answer questions asked by Congress during a phase of the lawsuit against him in late June. The act of not answering the questions was understood as contempt and admission of guilt, which led the Constitutional Court to decree his sentence of 15 months in prison.
These factors led to the emergence of the current political and social chaos. Thousands of people took to the streets demanding Zuma’s freedom and Ramaphosa’s resignation. The protests are becoming more and more violent, with 212 deaths having already been reported, in addition to counting thousands of injuries and hundreds of arrests. Protests are especially strong among communities of Zulu origin. Zuma is of Zulu ethnicity and has tried to bring several improvements to the living conditions of his people, which explains the broad support for his return among the members of these communities. The Zulu people are a South African native ethnic group very marginalized in the country, having suffered widespread rejection both during the Apartheid and throughout the new regime – which was structured to favor the Xhosa people (Nelson Mandela himself was a Xhosa), which is a historically rival of the Zulus.
During the nine years that Zuma was in power, the Zulus had greater political representation and economic participation in South African society, which began to change in recent years with the rise of Ramaphosa. So, in addition to a revolt over political and economic issues, the current South African crisis has also an ethnic factor that cannot be ignored – not by chance, 180 of the 212 deaths were reported in KwaZulu-Natal, a province of greater Zulu, where Zuma was born.
The reaction of state forces has been severe, with police violently fighting the unrest, leaving people dead and wounded. The armed forces were also mobilized to pacify the country’s streets. Some sectors of the South African Congress defended the formation of a state of emergency to implement stricter measures, to which Ramaphosa responded as unnecessary, since, according to him, the situation is already returning to normal in most of the country.
However, the president said that the “risks to democracy” remain: “It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy. The constitutional order of our country is under threat (…) While calm has returned to most of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the threat to our country and to our democracy remains present and real and destruction have not yet been apprehended and their networks have not yet been dismantled. We must therefore remain vigilant.”
By saying that there is a “coordinated attack”, the president appears to be adopting a narrative that claims that there is a group of dissidents behind the protests, conspiring against South African democracy. This narrative is consistent with the possibility of an attempted colorful revolution in South Africa, which would mean the existence of international support for the protesters. There are already accusations in this regard, which is generating international responses. For example, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov during a conference denied any Moscow involvement in the South African protests. Probably, other countries will take similar measures in the coming weeks.
Although colorful revolutions are a real phenomenon, organic manifestations also exist, expressing purely popular demands. It cannot be thought that every popular insurrection is a hybrid war and that there are no more authentic revolts. In this sense, in the South African case, there seems to be an authentic popular response to a long crisis caused by the government’s incompetence. There is no data, at least so far, to support the thesis of foreign involvement. But it is interesting and comfortable for the government to use this narrative to clean up its own image.