Actions must be taken to stop a repeat of the July 2021 unrest

On 7 July last year, former president Jacob Zuma began serving a 15-month prison sentence. His arrest stemmed from an unprecedented judgment by the constitutional court, which called for his imprisonment for failing to appear before the Zondo commission into state capture. 

The following week was characterised by widespread public violence, looting, destruction of property, injuries and deaths. Although there have been many contested accounts on how to refer to these events that were mainly concentrated in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the negative effect on democratic society was clear in its magnitude. A year later, it is essential to reflect on the socioeconomic and political causes and assess the steps that have been taken to manage or prevent its recurrence. Learning is important for safeguarding welfare, stability and order. 

The aftermath 

Public violence is not exclusive to South Africa. In January 2021, similar and perhaps more dramatic scenes were witnessed in the established democracy in the United States, with the Capitol riots that followed the ousting of Donald Trump as president. Violence of the same scale and intensity was evident in the “yellow vests” protests in France throughout 2021. In neighbouring eSwatini, widespread protests against the monarchy and for democracy, took place in the kingdom. 

On 1 April this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa, gave evidence at the recently concluded South African Human Rights Commission’s hearing into the July 2021 unrest. He estimated the economic costs to be more than R50-billion, two million jobs and disruption of supply chains. 

Other costs include the loss of livelihoods, shortage of food supplies, a humanitarian crisis and more than 350 lives. The president further told the commission that the government had taken “decisive steps” to ensure that such events would not reoccur. Yet there are signs that the present conditions could lead to a repeat of last year’s events. 

What needs to be fixed 

After the unrest, Ramaphosa announced the establishment of an expert panel to inquire into and review the government’s response to the events. The panel raised several salient points on the causes in its 154-page report. These included youth unemployment, pervasive poverty and racial tensions. 

The report also pointed to the local government governance crisis, including poor living conditions, spatial planning and service delivery. At a national level, corruption, state capture and intra-party contestations fuelled the lack of political accountability. In practice, these issues resulted in a government and security cluster that lacked coordination, was unprepared and failed to respond to the violence and looting effectively.

Local government


The perennial failures, including backlogs in infrastructure provision, poor service delivery and lack of maintenance were a significant factor contributing to the violence and looting. The dysfunction is compounded by poor political and administrative governance and general malfeasance, as evidenced by poor audit outcomes.

The direct effect of these events is witnessed in the decline of local economic development — a loss of business confidence, closure of businesses in many towns, growing unemployment and poverty. There is also no preparation for natural disasters, as seen in the devastation of the floods in April in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

No political party achieved an outright majority in the November 2021 local government elections in all the metropolitan municipalities at the heart of the July unrest, namely, Ethekwini, Ekurhuleni, Johannesburg and Tshwane. The election was also characterised by low voter turnout, which is a testament to these issues and citizens’ dissatisfaction. The failures are manifesting in daily service delivery protests, which can be the catalyst that sparks unrest.

Social cohesion


In the lead-up to the unrest, cleavages along ethnic and tribal lines were being stoked, as witnessed in the pronouncements from former president Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla compound. 


The lack of social cohesion led to racial violence between many Indian and black people in Phoenix and surrounding areas in KwaZulu-Natal. These divisions are readily seen through the anti-migrant sentiment that is on the rise. Issues such as rising unemployment and crime are blamed on migrants from the African continent. 


Recently, this sentiment led to violent acts such as the attacks on truck drivers and blockades along key arterial routes such as the N3, amounting to economic sabotage. This was a key spark of last year’s unrest. 


Moreover, it has resulted in the rise of vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula, whose members politicise migration to advance their causes and justify their actions, fuelling xenophobic fervour that results in violent demonstrations and attacks such as the torching of the Yeoville market in Johannesburg. These events have security implications, because they compound the likelihood of instability and unrest.

Intra-party factions


Internal battles in the ANC were a significant contributor to the unrest. The panel report added that the divisions in the ruling party fuelled the unrest and should be addressed “as a matter of national security”. This has played out in several ways. The tensions and factionalism in the party in 2016, before the local government elections, resulted in widespread violence in Tshwane over the nomination of Thoko Didiza as mayor. 


Daily, competing groupings use genuine public grievances and citizens as tools to stoke violent protests over narrow interests. In December 2022, the party is having its conference. Beyond the documented misuse and abuse of state resources and security apparatus for party battles, the likelihood of violence being used as a political tool remains present. 

The security cluster


Recently, Sasria, the state insurer that pays claims related to civil unrest, noted that, had the security agencies responded effectively from the outset, and assuming there had been no additional, consequential damage, the loss from the July unrest could have amounted to a figure way lower than the current estimates. After the failure of intelligence agencies to predict and prevent the events, the State Security Agency (SSA) was restructured and moved to the presidency, and the minister of public service and administration, Ayanda Dlodlo, was removed from her position. 


The minister of defence, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, was also removed from her portfolio, although this measure can be seen as a promotion rather than a punitive action. The South African Police Service was unable to respond to the events. One of the reasons cited was an overstretch of capacity but poor coordination was evident, and one of the reasons for this was the acrimonious relationship between the police minister and the national police commissioner. The latter was removed from his position. 


More recently, the Zondo commission’s final report into state capture documents the rot in the security cluster in general, and specifically, the incompetence of the state’s intelligence apparatus. Events that show the problems best include the recent laying of criminal charges against Ramaphosa by the former head of head of the SSA, Arthur Fraser, who was at the centre of Zuma’s release after being appointed as head of correctional services and who the Zondo state capture report recommends be investigated. 

What to do 

The high-level panel warned that it might only be a matter of time until more unrest occurs. A range of policy interventions have been proposed to address the underlying causes of the violence and looting in a comprehensive manner. 

There is a clear absence of a management framework to adequately prevent threats to human life, critical infrastructures such as electrical substations and other national key points, as well as private and other public property, which remains vulnerable to targeted acts of sabotage, arson and other attacks. 

The panel also called for a more responsible cabinet, better coordination and alignment, with strengthened capacity of the security services, a stronger early warning capability, as well as a better management of party contests. Moreover, the need to address the existing material conditions and ensure public confidence in state institutions is still pressing. Only if meaningful action follows will the lessons of the July unrest be genuinely learned.  

Stuart Mbanyele is a researcher in the governance delivery and impact programme at Good Governance Africa.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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Stuart Mbanyele
Stuart Mbanyele is a researcher in the governance delivery and impact programme at Good Governance Africa

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