SA unrest: The historic context of the current riots and violence

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South Africa Police Services (SAPS) officers stop looters from looting in central Durban.
South Africa Police Services (SAPS) officers stop looters from looting in central Durban.


With the recent chaos in the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, and the media focus on these areas pertaining to the violent riots and looting, it is easy to get wrapped up in some tunnel vision, focusing exclusively on these events.

The danger of this, of course, is that one runs the risk of trying to make sense of these events in isolation. However, a more holistic view reveals that nothing can be further from the truth.

A wider context is at play here, and the recent events are the latest manifestation of this. These events have a historical context, particularly if we relate them to the prevailing political, economic and social conditions.

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I would highlight in particular the following key factors:

  • The Covid-19 pandemic;
  • The political tumult emanating from the Zondo commission; corruption allegations against high-profile political leaders, and the sentencing and arrest of Jacob Zuma;
  • Lack of service delivery, skyrocketing unemployment and poverty; and
  • A dysfunctional senior police leadership.
If we want to make sense of what is happening currently, we have to look at the above factors as part of the wider context.

The rioting and violence that flare up from time to time – including what is happening now – are not isolated incidents that happen in a vacuum. They are almost always linked to a wider context. And in recent times, the four contextual factors mentioned above have been at the root of most of the violent protests and riots that the country has witnessed.

The pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic, and all of the red flags surrounding government’s handling of it, are perhaps the primary factor underlying the current discontent. People have lost businesses, jobs and their livelihoods due to the lockdown restrictions. Yet here we find ourselves in adjusted level 4 lockdown, with businesses and livelihoods being further crippled.

This adds to the desperation and tension, which means that even the slightest provocation could potentially set off a chain reaction of events such as what we are experiencing now. Just two weeks ago, London in the UK experienced violent anti-lockdown protests.

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A month ago, violent protests occurred in Germany against government measures to curb the pandemic. The point of these examples is to show that violent protests and riots are not unique to South Africa in the time of the pandemic.

As in other countries, the riots here are an expression of dissatisfaction with government’s handling of the pandemic. Of course, the reports of corruption and theft related to the pandemic do little to assuage growing public anger and frustration.

The two significant political events

Two significant political events that happened recently, namely the allegations against Ace Magashule and the arrest of Jacob Zuma, are the culmination of what has emerged from the Zondo commission. Citizens who listen to or watch the testimonies unfolding daily about the years of corruption and looting of state resources can hardly be blamed for feeling aggrieved.

Within this context, we also have what appears to be a “divide and conquer” strategy being employed, specifically the creation of division and even conflict between those favouring the arrest and punishment of those allegedly involved in corruption on the one hand, and those who support them on the other.

While social media warriors on both sides are going at it, the real culprits simply continue with what they have always been doing: keeping the masses under their control by getting them to fight among themselves.

Related to the above is the ongoing frustrations experienced by ordinary citizens due to the lack of service delivery, ongoing electricity problems, unemployment and poverty. Just before the recent riots, there were various violent service delivery protests in different parts of the country.

We all know these protests are not new, they have been going on for years. Yet here we are. People are still using violence to communicate their dissatisfaction with the lack of service delivery. Again, these issues affect the quality of the citizens’ lives. Many feel they have little option but to vent their frustrations through violence.

The police

Right now, the police are being criticised – from the highest level of the minister of police – for their inadequate response to the violent riots and looting. They have been accused of being reactive when they should have been proactive and should have anticipated the current situation.

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However, the fact is that the SA Police Service’s (SAPS) problems are not new. The SAPS has been fielding criticism from all sides due to allegations of police corruption, excessive use of force and a dysfunctional senior leadership structure.

Police Minister Bheki Cele’s press briefing about the SAPS’ response to the riots was met with little enthusiasm. This latest crisis is yet another blow to public confidence in the SAPS. From the moment the police became aware of the mobilisation of the pro-Zuma supporters in Nkandla, in KwaZulu-Natal, it is hard to fathom that the SAPS could not foresee, or at the very least, have planned for the possibility of violent reaction to Jacob Zuma’s arrest.

However, the situation was left to escalate and we are now witnessing the result. While Cele defended this course of (in)action, saying that the police “did not want to risk another Marikana”, the question is whether they have learnt anything since that incident in 2012 about how to handle public violence in a proactive manner.

It seems they have not. 

But is there another possibility? Did they act on instruction? Was this situation allowed to get out of control deliberately in order to justify a particular response, such as the deployment of the army?


These questions raise more questions about the possibility of what seems to be an example of a Hegelian dialectic in operation. What is the Hegelian dialectic? In simple terms, it can be summed up as problem-reaction-solution.

A problem is deliberately created in order to get a particular reaction/response, which in turn opens the door for a specific solution. What is the problem that has been created?

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An unstable society that is like a powder keg, caused by a combination of the four factors I outlined above. What is the reaction? The public criticism of government and even violent protests and riots against government. It is also possible that part of the reaction is to normalise violent protests and criminality, which is why it seems that those in authority demonstrate tolerance of these through their actions. What is the solution? This remains to be seen. At present we are still experiencing the problem and reaction stages of the dialectic. Perhaps the solution will come in the form of a normalisation of a paramilitary type of law enforcement structure that will enforce population control through the lockdown and curfews, such as we are now systematically being conditioned to accept as the new reality.

From this uncomfortable perspective, the solution may well be worse than the problem.

Petrus is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of the Free State

Professor Theodore Petrus, of the department of anthropology and the University of the Free StatePhoto: Supplied


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