Africa Brief

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Is South Africa’s Unrest an Insurrection?

President Cyril Ramaphosa believes the violence is politically motivated, but it looks more like an uprising of the poor and unemployed.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Armed people gather around a fire to keep warm at a road block set up to prevent looters from reaching the community in Phoenix Township, North Durban, South Africa, on July 15.
Armed people gather around a fire to keep warm at a road block set up to prevent looters from reaching the community in Phoenix Township, North Durban, South Africa, on July 15. GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: The aftermath of South Africa’s riots and its leaders’ baffling response, France offers a timeline to end its “forever war,” and a Ugandan athlete disappears in Japan.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: The aftermath of South Africa’s riots and its leaders’ baffling response, France offers a timeline to end its “forever war,” and a Ugandan athlete disappears in Japan.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Tuesday, please sign up here.


The Aftermath of South Africa’s Riots

After days of riots, South Africa is beginning to return to normal, but just what that will look like is still unclear. More than 200 people were killed, and hundreds were arrested—but the human, economic, and political cost of the riots is still being tallied. What’s more, the government’s confused response reveals divisions within the ruling African National Congress (ANC)—rifts which are destabilizing the country.

The trigger. Last Thursday, as former South African President Jacob Zuma spent his first night in prison, sentenced to 15 months in jail for contempt of court, fires were lit in parts of Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal stronghold. Trucks carrying essential goods were set alight, and a national highway was blockaded in protest, which continued over the weekend and spread to the South African cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban.

The protest shifted to looting, targeting supermarkets in Durban’s townships and small businesses in the city’s center. By Sunday, the looting had spread to downtown Johannesburg, but it was in the townships on the city’s edges where the most damage occurred. On Monday, South Africans woke up to rolling television news coverage of looters running into shopping malls, carrying groceries, clothing, and appliances out of shops.

Police watched helplessly as looters lifted whole refrigerators or walked out with television sets. By this point, few protesters mentioned Zuma’s name, and instead, it became a free for all spurred by criminal opportunism and sheer hunger.

The looters, who didn’t even bother covering their faces from police or the cameras, were largely young, Black South Africans. This is the group most adversely affected by poverty and unemployment, both of which worsened during the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2020, unemployment had reached 30.1 percent; in the same period of 2021, it had again increased to 32.4 percent. Among South Africans ages 15 to 34, it was 46.2 percent. More than a third of middle-class homes fell into poverty during the pandemic.

Then a third wave of COVID-19 infections hit during the winter, devastating the country’s economic hub around Johannesburg in particular. Low-skilled jobs were particularly affected by lockdown measures, adding to the economic burden—particularly for young Black South Africans. These were the victims of the so-called “nine wasted years” of the Zuma presidency, in which corruption saw the looting of state coffers and the hollowing out of state-owned companies, from rail to electricity, by Zuma’s cronies.

The response. A lackluster national address by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on July 11 failed to quell the violence. Ramaphosa made broad statements like “this violence may indeed have its roots in the pronouncements and activities of individuals with a political purpose and in expressions of frustration and anger.” Instead, some fear his characterization that “some people who sought to agitate for violence and disorder along ethnic lines” only fueled more anger.

A subsequent press briefing of South Africa’s security chiefs revealed the lack of cohesion in Ramaphosa’s cabinet. Police seemed to be caught off guard despite warnings from the state spy agency. Intelligence services said they have identified individuals who coordinated and instigated the violence while police launched an ill-advised, door-to-door campaign to seize looted goods unless a receipt could be produced.

Although some, including the president, called for the military’s deployment, the defense minister seemed unwilling to implement a state of emergency. While many observers argued the military’s heavy handedness during the first phase of the COVID-19 lockdown was reason for pause, the military’s mandate was unclear on this deployment.

The discord between Ramaphosa and his defense minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, became even more glaring when Ramaphosa, in a more assertive address on Friday, described the violence as an insurrection. Mapisa-Nqakula, a senior ANC member who also served as defense minister under Zuma, told parliament the military saw no signs of an insurrection or attempted coup but rather a “counterrevolution” in the form of “criminality and thuggery,” as she put it.

Hours later, Ramaphosa again repeated his claim that this was an insurrection, saying during a Nelson Mandela Day lecture it was clear the days of looting were a “deliberate, coordinated, and well-planned attack.” Mapisa-Nqakula later said that one led to the other—counterrevolution to insurrection—only further muddling the government’s position.

The result. This confusion has made it difficult to find a solution in what could be a turning point in South Africa’s fledgling democracy. In a hint of optimism, the rolling coverage of violence and looting was replaced with footage of ordinary South Africans sweeping the streets and cleaning up storefronts. In the immediate aftermath, residents in Durban and Pietermaritzburg faced food shortages while companies were beginning to count the number of jobs lost and the cost of rebuilding.

As South Africans reckoned with the looting’s aftermath, their leaders brought little comfort. It is clear the government’s strategy is decided on a day-to-day basis, with press briefings failing to communicate a singular response. This is, unfortunately, characteristic of the ANC’s inability to develop a cohesive vision to rebuild the country after apartheid and years of corruption and provide a viable future for the next generation.


The Week Ahead

July 22: A Southern African Development Community fact-finding mission to Eswatini ends.

July 23: The Olympic Games are set to kick off in Tokyo.

July 25: South Africa’s COVID-19 regulations will be reviewed.


What We’re Watching

Wounded captive Ethiopian soldiers arrive on a truck at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in Mekele, Ethiopia, on July 2.

Wounded captive Ethiopian soldiers arrive on a truck at the Mekele Rehabilitation Center in Mekele, Ethiopia, on July 2.YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP via Getty Images

A muted victory in Ethiopia. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had little time to celebrate his Prosperity Party’s landslide election win as rebels in Tigray celebrated their own victory. Two weeks after retaking the strategically and psychologically important capital of the Tigray province, Mekele, fighting began to spread into neighboring provinces. The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) said it is targeting Amhara militias aligned with the government, with fighting spilling into the neighboring Afar region.

Hundreds of Ethiopian National Defense Force troops now languish as prisoners of war in Tigray. On July 18, Abiy said the army is “taking positions” to push back against the TPLF against a backdrop of reports that ethnic Tigrayans in Addis Ababa are being forced out of their jobs and businesses, with some being arrested for carrying identification cards issued in Tigray.

France’s mission in the Sahel ends. French President Emmanuel Macron announced a timeline for the withdrawal of French forces in the Sahel region. “We will put an end to Operation Barkhane in the first quarter of 2022 in an orderly fashion,” he told French troops ahead of Bastille Day celebrations on July 13.

Launched in 2013, the 5,100-troop mission is headquartered in N’Djamena, Chad, but operates across the Sahel to support the G-5 Sahel states, namely Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Mauritania, and Chad against a many-headed jihadist insurgency. It also threatened to become France’s “forever war,” becoming increasingly unpopular at home and among African civilians.

Eswatini’s new prime minister. Africa’s last absolute monarchy swore in a new prime minister on July 19. Cleopas Sipho Dlamini, who previously headed the country’s pension fund, was chosen by King Mswati III on July 16. The king’s proclamation ignored pleas from activists, civil society leaders, and demonstrators for the right to choose their own prime minister in Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland).

What’s more, King Mswati III made the announcement during what was supposed to be a national dialogue to address days of deadly protests but what turned into a monologue from the king who mocked his detractors. The new prime minister replaced Ambrose Dlamini (no relation), who succumbed to COVID-19 last year, and acting prime minister Themba Masuku, who expressed willingness to negotiate with pro-democracy advocates.

Nigeria’s new electoral laws. Nigeria’s senate passed a bill that would allow the electronic transmission of electoral results. The new system could make the country’s 2023 elections more transparent, but it bypasses the Independent National Electoral Commission, which has been criticized for its lack of independence. It empowers the Nigerian Communications Commission and National Assembly, diluting the electoral commission’s power and theoretically providing more oversight.

This amendment, supported by lawmakers and the public, led to a heated July 15 debate. A day earlier, the Nigerian Senate also passed a bill to establish the Electoral Offences Commission, a body separate from the electoral commission to prosecute crimes that arise during elections. These crimes relate to tampering with ballot boxes and using illegal voter identification cards; sentences of up to 10 years in prison can be given to officials who refuse to count ballots.


Chart of the Week

Fatal surge in COVID-19 deaths. COVID-19 deaths in Africa have increased steeply for five straight weeks, according to the World Health Organization. Although the continent’s cumulative deaths are lower than other regions, the 2.6 percent fatality rate is higher than the global average of 2.2 percent. This is indicative of a lack of resources for treatment as hospitals face a shortage in oxygen and intensive care unit beds.


This Week in Culture

The missing Olympian. Ugandan weightlifter Julius Ssekitoleko disappeared from the Olympic village in Tokyo last week. The 20-year-old athlete left a note saying he did not want to return to Uganda, where life was too difficult, and hoped to find work in Japan.

Officials noticed Ssekitoleko’s disappearance when he failed to submit to a mandatory coronavirus test on July 16. Ssekitoleko had failed to qualify in the men’s 56 kilogram weightlifting category and was set to return to Uganda on July 20. Instead, he was spotted on CCTV footage at the train station, arriving in the city of Nagoya 120 miles from the training camp. In the note, he asked his teammates to return his belongings to his wife.

Ssekitoleko is not the first Ugandan athlete to make a run for it on an international tour. In 2015, two members of the rugby sevens team disappeared from the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, only to reappear as asylum-seekers. The two now play for a small Welsh team. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Ethiopian marathoner Feyisa Lilesa also refused to return home. Feyisa, who famously flashed an Oromo political symbol as he took second place, ended his exile in 2018 when Abiy Ahmed came to power.


African Voices

The hole in Uganda’s COVID-19 relief net. Amid a 42-day COVID-19 lockdown, Uganda’s government announced it would distribute emergency cash transfers. This relief system, though, may not reach one third of adults who have been left out of the digitization of the national identity system, Dorothy Mukasa, Salima Namusobya, and Christiaan van Veen show in African Arguments.

International aid for South Africa’s corruption. The Gupta family still casts a shadow over South Africa, even after the family fled to Dubai as the net tightened around Zuma and his cronies. In Foreign Policy, David Lewis and Michael F. Breen make the case that the United Arab Emirates must extradite the Guptas back to South Africa.

Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

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