The insurrection in South Africa is about more than freeing Zuma

The unrest was not a bread riot or a spontaneous uprising of the poor. It was a targeted violent campaign to undermine the president and extract political concessions from the government – and it may have already backfired.

A man walks past graffiti reading "free Zuma" and "we want Zuma" outside a shopping mall in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, South Africa, on Wednesday, July 14, 2021 [AP Photo/Themba Hadebe]

Over the last 11 days South Africa has been engulfed by the worst unrest and mass violence since the end of apartheid. While things have settled into an uneasy calm as the military patrol the worst-hit areas, the nation remains anxious and fearful.

Speaking to the country last Thursday evening, President Cyril Ramaphosa described the unrest as an insurrection targeting the country’s economy and infrastructure. The insurrection, triggered by ex-President Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court on July 7, has already seen at least 212 deaths, the supply chain of an entire province destroyed, billions of dollars worth of damage inflicted on two of the country’s major cities, and hundreds of businesses and key parts of the country’s infrastructure burned to the ground.

KwaZulu-Natal, home to some 12 million people, will take years to recover. In the absence of state authorities, numerous neighbourhoods formed armed militias to protect their businesses and communities. Ramaphosa has deployed 25,000 South African National Defence Force soldiers to the afflicted areas, the largest deployment of troops since the advent of democracy in 1994.

The unrest began on Friday, July 9, 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. The toll gate is a key part of the country’s economy as it links the port of Durban, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, to the country’s economic heartland of Gauteng. Following this attack, other groups used burning tyres and logs to block roads. In the days that followed, large numbers of people looted shopping centres across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, before turning on other businesses.

While many of those involved looted food and basic goods – a reflection of the desperation and poverty that plagues South Africa – others, including some driving expensive cars, took consumer goods – TVs, speakers, and such – while the police stood by seemingly unable or unwilling to respond.

At the same time as the mass looting was taking place, a well-organised 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. Medical clinics, mosques, schools and pharmacies were also targeted and, as a result of the unrest, the entire COVID-19 vaccination drive in Durban, a city of around four million, was suspended amid a devastating third wave.

Clashes between vigilantes and “looters” have killed dozens of people and social media agitators are openly attempting to foment racial violence. KwaZulu-Natal has a tragic history of racial violence between the province’s Black population and its large ethnically Indian community, including events such as the 1949 Durban riots, a bitter racial conflict between the city’s Black and Indian population that killed 142 people. Mafia-like minibus taxi associations have also taken the law into their hands, sending armed men to protect shopping malls in several provinces. These taxi associations known for their violent methods of regulating the industry – as can be seen in the bloody taxi war currently ravaging Cape Town – have rebranded themselves as the defenders of law and order, as the industry relies on having businesses to ferry commuters to. Looting and the destruction of businesses ultimately hurt their bottom line and, in a bitter twist of irony, they have used their thugs to restore order and protect property.

This unrest has been unleashed by forces calling for the release of Zuma from prison. These forces are known as the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The RET includes Zuma’s unruly children who have been calling for violence and agitating via social media; political entrepreneurs who sell their services and media profile; mafias, who see defending Zuma as a way of protecting themselves from prosecution; military veterans loyal to Zuma, a senior commander of the ANC armed wing during the anti-apartheid struggle; elements of the charismatic churches, which have been vocal in defending Zuma for years and have benefitted from his patronage networks; and Zulu nationalists, as Zuma was the first Zulu president and has mobilised support through ethno-nationalist appeals to the country’s Zulu population. Since 2008, this faction has threatened to make the country burn if Zuma is prosecuted for one of the many corruption charges that still hang over his head. In the run-up to his imprisonment, these forces rallied at his infamous Nkandla compound – the site of the defining scandal of his presidency after it was revealed taxpayers forked out some $20m for “security upgrades” there – and armed men threatened violence and civil war if Zuma was imprisoned.

This faction has been very open about its intentions from the beginning. According to a statement purportedly from the Free Jacob Zuma campaign claiming to speak on behalf of the RET faction, their demands include his immediate release from prison, that the corruption charges against him be dropped, the nationalisation of the reserve bank, mines and other large industries, fighting “real state capture by white oligarchs”, an end to lockdown measures, and state expropriation of land without compensation (RET supporters have been calling for the state to speed up land reform by nationalising white-owned farms without compensating the current owners). It is unclear if the campaign is serious about its demands as the more radical sections of it could be a way to portray the campaign as being about more than just freeing Zuma and protecting his allies from prosecution.

The ANC government has admitted that this faction also includes rogue elements from the state intelligence services, which absconded with billions of rand and untold numbers of firearms during Zuma’s presidency. According to the Daily Maverick’s Ferial Haffajee, “There are indications that dark forces within the state security apparatuses, with links to the dark side of civil society, have been masterminds.” Deputy State Security Minister Zizi Kodwa at a briefing last Wednesday said that those behind the attacks “are people with experience of running operations”. Indeed, this campaign might have been in the works for years. President Ramaphosa himself admitted the security forces were not prepared for the onslaught of the last week. Ramaphosa claimed that 12 “instigators” of the unrest had been identified; as of writing, five of them have been taken into custody.

According to reports from various municipalities in KwaZulu-Natal, police in the province largely disappeared from the streets during the riots. Intelligence reports about possible attacks on malls or logistics centres were ignored. There are also credible accusations that senior KwaZulu-Natal ANC officials and public office holders were involved in planning and executing these attacks.

After nine days of looting, and as an uneasy calm returns amid a flood of disinformation and fake news, the fear is that this was only the first stage of the planned insurrection. A senior ANC leader told the Mail & Guardian newspaper that: “Ramaphosa was warned by intelligence that this was the first phase of a program that aims to destabilize the country. We’ve been told that the instigators are equipped with heavy machinery, and the looting is only phase one.”

For years many have predicted that South Africa, the most unequal country on the planet, would be hit by mass unrest – our “Tunisia Day”. The majority of people live in poverty, more than 30 percent of the labour force is unemployed, basic services have collapsed in much of the country and the government is inefficient and corrupt. This, combined with ongoing racial and ethnic divides which have exploded into outright violence in some communities during the past few days, makes the country a tinderbox.

However, the unrest was not a bread riot or a spontaneous uprising of the poor. It was a targeted violent campaign aiming to extract political concessions from the government, while undermining Ramaphosa’s presidency, but who was behind it and what are their goals?

What is RET?

Jacob Zuma came to power with the support of much of the country’s organised left in 2009. Promising to end neoliberalism, he instead facilitated “state capture”: the handing over of the levers of the economy and policymaking to private interests. In this case, to the Gupta family, a second-rate business clan from India who relocated to South Africa after the end of apartheid in pursuit of easier pickings. With the help of Zuma and the sacks of cash handed out from “the Saxonwold Shebeen” – as the Guptas’ compound in Johannesburg is known – ministers were chosen, contracts were awarded, and economic policies decided based on what was best for the Guptas. According to some estimates, state capture cost the South African economy 60 billion pounds ($82.6bn).

Enter Ramaphosa, a former trade union leader turned billionaire and the ANC’s chief negotiator during South Africa’s democratic transition. Ramaphosa replaced Zuma in 2018, following a narrow win in the ANC’s electoral conference over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and Zuma’s ex-wife) at the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017.

Zuma was forced out of his office by his own party as the corruption that defined his presidency began not only to threaten the viability of the South African state, but more importantly for the ruling party, the electoral prospects of the ANC. Zuma came to power promising to restore state capacity, rid the government of corruption and appoint capable officials to the country’s National Prosecution Authority. Since Ramaphosa’s elevation to the presidency, the ANC has been divided by a factional war between his “reform” faction, which claims to be about restoring state capacity and good government through fighting corruption, and the RET faction.

According to RET supporters, the internal fight within the ANC is one waged between those who wish to radically transform South Africa’s economy in favour of the Black majority and white monopoly capital and its Black stooges. The irony is that the term “Radical Economic Transformation” was itself cooked up in the wake of the Nkandla scandal by the hired guns of British PR firm Bell Pottinger, founded by a Tory peer known as Margaret Thatcher’s favourite spin doctor. Bell Pottinger was employed by one of Zuma’s sons with Gupta money to clean up his father’s image. The firm, whose luminous clients included Augusto Pinochet, might be no more, but its campaign proved successful and RET is now an essential part of South Africa’s political lexicon.

The RET faction is best understood as a network of loosely aligned groups ranging from factions of the ANC, opposition parties – including at times the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – criminal networks, media groups and influencers rather than a coherent movement. These groups coalesce to defend shared interests, in particular access to rents, securing illegal markets, like the illegal tobacco trade and the country’s booming extortion industry, and protection from criminal prosecution. They share a set of enemies from prying investigative journalists, the tax revenue collection service, prosecutors and the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC, as well as a rhetorical commitment to the articulation of a nation or social order based on Black majority control, particularly related to state-owned enterprises. Despite its alleged “radical” mask, RET essentially amounts to rhetoric to disguise a parasitic form of looting from state-owned enterprises and the call for more of the economy to be transferred into the hands of these criminal networks.

In this case, the imprisonment of Zuma might be the hill this faction is willing to die on, as they know that his imprisonment opens the door to future prosecutions. It is their shared opposition to accountability and the need to hold elements of political power in order to maintain their rackets that unites these forces under the banner of “free Zuma”. They are likely attempting to extract concessions from the government that protects them from prosecution or being removed from public office.

The ‘mafia’ fights back

The closest analogy to the continuing unrest in South Africa can be found in the reaction of powerful, entrenched organised crime groups that are threatened by legal prosecution and a loss of political protection. The actors involved in instigating unrest are linked to organised crime and have used public office to build powerful patronage machines; factional politics in the ANC is a battle over resources and rackets rather than ideology in this sense, even if unlike the mafia RET still needs some popular support.

The mafia strategy is to employ open violence to win legal concessions from the state, to target key public officials, humiliate the government and spread “lawlessness” to demonstrate the mafia’s power and the state’s impotence. However, we have seen elsewhere how this strategy can backfire, bringing about a public backlash and stronger support for a state-driven crackdown.

In Sicily, for example, the Cosa Nostra unleashed a targeted wave of car bombings and assassinations when its leaders faced prosecution in the 1980s and 1990s. Infamously, it killed the crusading judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino with bombs in 1992, after the mafia maxi-trial of 1986-7 convicted 342 mafiosi. The mafia, which had established itself as a powerful shadow government with connections stretching from the top of the then-ruling Christian Democratic Party to the Vatican, opted for a strategy of open confrontation to protect itself. This strategy ultimately failed as it turned the public against it, bringing down the wrath of the central government through military deployments in Sicily. The top bosses, including the infamous boss of all bosses, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, were hunted down one by one and imprisoned. As a result of its attempt to challenge the state, the Cosa Nostra lost much of its power, ceding its position as the top organised crime group in Italy to the Calabria based ‘Ndrangheta.

A similar example can be found in Colombia in the late 1980s and early 90s, when Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel declared themselves “the non-extraditable” and unleashed a wave of terror – bombings, assassinations, kidnappings – that left thousands of Colombians dead in an attempt to avoid extradition to the United States. After assassinating cabinet ministers, leading politicians, judges, kidnapping the families of leading Colombians and even blowing up planes and government buildings, Escobar agreed to hand himself in, provided he could build the prison he would be housed in. This proved a pyrrhic victory, as the government responded by attempting to move him to a normal prison when reports surfaced about the lavish palatial “prison” he had constructed, and the murder of two cartel members on the prison grounds, Escobar fled prison. He would spend the rest of his life hunted by the government, his criminal rivals and former friends until his death in 1993. This strategy backfired, the brutal violence turned the public against Escobar and his political protection diminished as the number of bullets outweighed the bribes he handed out.

In South Africa, Zuma and the RET faction are attempting to use violence to gain concessions from the government rather than enact a classical coup. While they surely set out to weaken Ramaphosa in the run-up to local elections scheduled for later this year, and likely set the groundwork for his removal at the next ANC National Congress, they are not aiming for regime change. Instead, they wish to protect their position and patronage networks.

There are some early signs that the RET overplayed its hand. The insurrection was geographically limited and has already sparked public fury; now the images on television screens are of communities repairing the damage, cleaning up the cities and rebuilding rather than fire, mass looting, and destruction. It is also possible that the unrest has in fact placed Ramaphosa in a stronger position to deal with his enemies, as he likely enjoys widespread public backing to crack down on those responsible. Furthermore, if he introduces the Basic Income Grant, which he has been hinting at over the last few days, this might go down as the defining moment of his presidency and secure him a second term.

“Free Zuma” means a lot more than just the liberty of our former president. However, as these past examples teach us, this strategy has a tendency to backfire, inviting widespread public support for harsher government crackdowns. And it may already be the case that the insurrection has backfired for the instigators. In South Africa, arresting the culprits would amount to a pyrrhic victory if the government does not introduce the type of economic and social policies that deal with the country’s underlying social problems. Riina died in prison and Escobar died in a shootout on a rooftop; Zuma and his allies may have overplayed their hand in South Africa too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.