South African Riots: When Poverty Meets Inequality

The jailing of ex-President Jacob Zuma, persistent racial, gender, spatial inequalities, and unrestrained poverty account for the violent clashes that have shaken South Africa.

The jailing of former President, Jacob Zuma, has been the spark of continuous riots and looting of shopping centers across South African provinces, especially in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Zuma has been convicted of contempt of court on July 7 after failing to attend an inquiry into corruption during his presidency and was given a 15-month prison sentence. He has denied any wrongdoing but handed himself to the police last Thursday.

Zuma’s supporters reacted to this news by blocking main roads and initiating lootings in businesses. As historian and editor of Al Jazeera, Benjamin Fogel recalls, the unrest began “when a heavily armed and masked gang hijacked trucks near the Mooi River Toll Plaza and used them to block the road before torching 25 vehicles.”

While the looting was taking place, “a well-organized and planned campaign of economic sabotage targeted the entire supply chain of KwaZulu-Natal along with key communications infrastructure, water facilities and other vital parts of the province’s economy”, further analyses Fogel. As a result, some medical facilities and schools were targeted and the COVID-19 vaccination drive in Durban has been suspended, leaving a difficult scenario for South Africa in its attempts to combat the third wave of the pandemic.

Gaps in the system

These riots have uncovered some of the South African systemic gaps. Although considered a free and democratic constitutional country, deep poverty and inequality are still rampant. The country’s progress has stagnated due to structural challenges worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

South Africa could be described as a dual economy with one of the highest inequality rates in the world perpetrated by a “legacy of exclusion and the nature of economic growth, which is not pro-poor and does not generate sufficient jobs”, the World Bank specifies. Inequality is represented by a Gini coefficient of 63 and it tends to be passed down from generation to generation.

This inequality is explained in racial, gender, and spatial terms. According to the World Inequality Database, white people are more likely to find work and earn almost three times more than black civilians. In the same vein, female workers tend to earn 30% less than male workers, and rural workers less than half of what urban workers do.

Racial issues are still very extended in society. The killing of Collins Khosa when he was in his yard caused great commotion in 2020. Security forces accused him of drinking alcohol in public, illegal under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. Khosa and “at least 10 Black South Africans during COVID-19 lockdown were killed by security forces”, the human rights organization, Freedom House explains. Moreover, the indigenous, nomadic Khoikhoi and Khomani San peoples suffer from social and legal discrimination, and immigrants from other African countries face xenophobic violence. Similarly, gender-based violence continues to be a real problem with as much as “51% of South African women experiencing violence at the hands of someone with whom they were in an intimate relationship”, Human Rights Watch says.

Therefore, we find an unequal society and wealth redistributing system. As Stellenbosch University economist, Anna Orthofer, explains the “wealthiest 1% owns 67% of all the country’s wealth, the top 10% owns 93%, and the remaining 90% of South Africa owns 7% of the country’s wealth.” All these disparities are taking place in a country where unemployment is also rising. Unemployment has reached an unprecedented 32.5% in 2020, and the youth are the most affected by it (between the ages 15-24 there is a 63% unemployment rate)

Along with poverty and inequality, corruption is a major problem in the country. In recent years, the ruling African National Congress has been accused of “undermining state institutions in order to protect corrupt officials and preserve its power as its support base began to wane”, as Freedom House picks up. Corruption has hampered the proper functioning of government during the Zuma administration, “which the Gupta family heavily influenced”, further reports the organization.

Since the end of Apartheid South Africa has not seen such violent clashes. These upheavals have left 212 deaths, more than 1,200 people arrested, numerous shortages of livestock, the destruction of supply chains, billions of dollars worth of damage, and hundreds of businesses burned down. Desperation produced by poverty and persistent inequality with a mix of political opportunism of those close to ex-President Jacob Zuma is the root cause of these riots that have affected 2/3 of the major cities of the country.

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