- Years of turmoil heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic boiled over in South Africa with the imprisonment of ex-president Jacob Zuma.
- South Africa was “volatile” even before Zuma turned himself over to police, a political scientist told Insider.
- Violent unrest and looting has rocked South Africa since Zuma’s imprisonment last week.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Years of social and economic turmoil heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic boiled over in South Africa with the imprisonment of ex-president Jacob Zuma, leading to the deadly unrest rocking the country, a political scientist told Insider Wednesday.
South Africa was “volatile” even before Zuma – who was president from 2009 to 2018 – turned himself over to police last week to serve a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court, said Liv Tørres, the director of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
“What has been growing over years and years has been both an increasing level of tension and anger,” explained Tørres. “Anger among the poor that the promises they were given during the transition to democracy about delivery of jobs and future hopes have not been kept, basically.”
Approximately half of the adult population in South Africa is living below the poverty line, Tørres noted, adding that in parts of South Africa, “a big majority of African youth have got no prospects at all of getting jobs.”
“These frustrations and tensions have been growing over at least the last 10 years,” Tørres said.
The imprisonment of Zuma, who refused to cooperate with a South African inquiry into corruption, is “basically the last thing that ignites a lot of anger and frustration around the country,” she said.
“Poverty, high crime, high inequality, a feeling broken of promises – add this on top of COVID where hundreds of thousands of people have lost their livelihoods and their jobs, they don’t see any future,” Tørres said.
She added, “So it was volatile in the first place before Zuma’s prison sentence was on the agenda.”
Since the imprisonment of Zuma, there have been looting and violent protests in the streets resulting in the deaths of more than 70 people.
The unrest – which Tørres noted “is definitely the worst violence we have seen since before the end of apartheid” in the 1990s – has been centered around the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province.
Many of the demonstrators are supporters of Zuma.
“They are dedicated to him,” Tørres said, explaining that Zuma “has a history of being a leader in the liberation struggle.”
“He was an exile, he was jailed, he’s paid a huge price for freedom for South Africans, so that’s part of the reason why people are mobilizing now,” said Tørres.
A lot of Zuma’s supporters, she said, “also believe this is a political setup and that he’s not really corrupt.”
Tørres said she believes that some wreaking havoc in South Africa are only taking advantage of the chaotic situation.
The demonstrations have been joined by “criminal groups, angry youth, and things are spinning out of control,” said Tørres.
However, the unrest, Tørres said, was inevitable.
“I do think it was to be expected at some stage,” she said. “People had been in desperate circumstances and just more and more angry, so it had to blow up at some stage.”