Is Jacob Zuma still in a position to influence events in South Africa?

Three weeks after the KwaZulu-Natal violence, we still don’t know why Zuma’s incarceration sparked the unrest that has cost us all so much.

If there is one undisputed fact about the mayhem that shocked South Africa three weeks ago, it is that if it happened again tomorrow, we would still be unprepared to respond appropriately.

That is because the search for answers is sometimes mired in an understanding and analysis designed to give meaning to our own biases and perceptions, which are at best the result of honest, but naively off-the-mark reflections.

This becomes evident as we run through some of the common threads of the conversations around what propelled the unprecedented levels of rioting and looting that has left the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng estimating the cost in billions of rands.

The first is that supporters of imprisoned former president Jacob Zuma were mobilised and incited to revolt against the government of President Cyril Ramaphosa. In this “attempted insurrection/coup/counter-revolution” scenario, unwitting souls were hoodwinked into believing that they were part of a noble cause against an injustice visited upon a harmless, 79-year-old grandfather who should be left alone to enjoy the last years of his life after struggling for the emancipation of his people for so long.

The suggestion here is that no “right-thinking” person would participate in the riots in support of somebody who has defied the law. After all, as we have seen in the aftermath, it is counter-productive to destroy property to extract concessions from authorities, because it is those very same communities that end up suffering.

However, it would have been a mistake to assume that people would not do something like this merely because it is stupid to behave in this fashion.

In different parts of South Africa, and specifically in KwaZulu-Natal, on virtually any given day of the week there are violent protests that lead to the destruction of not only critical government infrastructure such as schools, clinics, municipal offices and vehicles, but also businesses and factories. A case in point is previous attacks on the property of Richards Bay Minerals which employs about 5,000 people and is a key player in the economic growth of the province as its largest taxpayer, contributing R8-billion to the national fiscus in 2020. The giant global mining company has even considered relocating its operations, in a move that would plunge the community into deeper poverty and joblessness.

More than once, factories at the Isithebe Industrial Park in Mandeni on the North Coast have suffered losses calculated in millions of rands at the hands of arsonists. Squabbles within the local ANC leadership have been blamed.

Even more famously, learners in Vuwani, Limpopo, lost valuable schooling days in 2016 when the community fought demarcation wars with the authorities. About 30 schools and other infrastructure were destroyed.

In other words, for several years this bonfire of discontent has been smouldering for a variety of reasons. It was always going to be a matter of time before it consumed a whole province, if not the country. Those who had vested interests in the properties targeted by looters joined hands to defend their territories, while those who had little or nothing they could call their own jumped on a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse at what life could be like with a fully stocked refrigerator.

A lasting memory for some would be of a social media video of a dirty street kid washing himself with stolen milk. He could not have struck anyone as a budding revolutionary inspired by the heroics of the youth of 1976 on a mission to overthrow a government.

To some, it might be a mystery — or an indication of a bigger sabotage mission — that senseless acts of arson and destruction accompanied the looting. Otherwise, why would people not just take the goods?

A particular feature of crime in South Africa is “unnecessary” violence. When frail, unarmed, senior citizens become victims of burglary and armed robbery in their homes, they are often subjected to extreme brutality despite offering little or no resistance.

In the twilight of his political career, with no prospect of being at the helm of the country or the ANC again, Zuma should be a dwindling political force, increasingly isolated as his patronage networks realise that his usefulness is approaching an end.

Break-ins at schools to steal food supplied under the national nutrition programme are a challenge faced regularly by principals, even in the most poverty-stricken communities where one would expect greater appreciation for the importance of that meal to a child whose family can afford nothing else for that day.

Indeed, many beneficiaries would today be embarrassed to admit that valuable computers and other equipment donated under various social investment initiatives have been stolen or destroyed by elements within those very communities in dire need of a helping hand.

It could be that we are looking up to the police and our spooks to get to the cause of the mayhem, when the answer lies in the broken moral fibre of our society that no longer frowns upon the flaunting of ill-gotten gains, be it a bag of potatoes from a looted mall three weeks ago or millions of rands misappropriated from taxpayers over many years.

But have we not heard that all this had its roots in ethnic mobilisation?

The narrative expounded in some quarters is that the riots have their origins in Zuma’s mobilisation of Zulu ethnic support when he returned from exile to find the ANC and Inkatha engaged in a bloody war. This line of thinking goes on to suggest that it was these “angry” Zulus who were venting their fury at the perceived ill-treatment of their kinsman and, as is their wont, resorted to violence.

This proposition does not take adequate account of the fact that all shades of ethnic groupings, nationalities and races participated in the looting. Women and children of different races joined in the frenzy, and among the families that needed assistance with burial costs for those who perished during the riots were those from the Eastern Cape and neighbouring countries.

It is also well known that a large number of people who live in shacks around major towns and cities in KwaZulu-Natal have non-Zulu ancestry, with many refusing to recognise the Zulu king as their monarch. Is it likely that they would want to be involved in Zuma’s ethnic battles, if that is what this was all about in the first place?

Given that this is KwaZulu-Natal, the majority of those involved in the criminal acts would be of Zulu descent. However, this does not imply that this is the reason they took part. Many Zulu-speaking ANC members in the province oppose Zuma and his faction of radical economic transformation.


For what it is worth to note, Zuma’s own hometown of Nkandla and Ulundi largely emerged unscathed because local communities protected them. This would suggest that these bastions of the rich Zulu history of wars of resistance against white settlers saw no reason to pick up their spears to fight alongside the latter-day crusader against white domination of the economy.

What, then, about the fearsome amabutho, the colourful Zulu regiments that came in their numbers to support Zuma in Nkandla?

Their commander-in-chief is the king. Under him are leadership structures that cascade to the basic units of the regiments set up at a village level. Traditionally, regardless of his stature as a former or even sitting president of the Republic, Zuma defers to the leadership of these structures, and not the other way around.

Like any members of society, some of those who belong to these regiments identify Zuma as one of their own, but they would have needed to be ordered by their commander-in-chief to participate in that traditional capacity during the events in question. Those who have witnessed amabutho from hostels in full cry during the violence of the 80s and 90s would confirm that, had they been unleashed three weeks ago, the numbers of the dead would have run into thousands instead of hundreds.

Zuma’s incarceration, as expected, led some to conclude that the man who had managed to avoid prison for so long had finally been cornered. The belief was that the rule of law was supreme in South Africa and that no one was above it.

More importantly, having Zuma in prison would send a clear message that the game was over for many who may have believed that because of their proximity to powerful political players, they belonged to a class of untouchables.

Zuma’s political obituaries have been written many times before.

For some reason, we do not seem able to gauge correctly what the impact of his influence in society translates into, as well as its implications for the broader South African society and its politics.

In the twilight of his political career, with no prospect of being at the helm of the country or the ANC again, Zuma should be a dwindling political force, increasingly isolated as his patronage networks realise that his usefulness is approaching an end.

Three weeks later, we still haven’t figured out why Zuma’s incarceration sparked the unrest that has cost us all so much.

And, frighteningly, we still don’t know what the next phase would have been if this was an attempted coup or insurgency.


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