Power, Politics and Protests: Inside South Africa’s KZ-Natal Struggles

A clash of the past versus the present has put the future of South Africa at great risk for more than two weeks. Supporters of former President, Jacob Zuma trooped out to the streets to protest his jail sentence, but chose a way that has too often become the story of political dissent – violence. 

With close to 300 businesses affected, 161 malls and shopping centers, 11 warehouses, eight factories and 161 liquor stores and distributors destroyed; more than $680m has been lost in stolen goods, burnt trucks and properties destroyed, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Much more than economic ruins, those fits of rage left the Rainbow nation beaten to no hue, to a pulp and a possible decline. 

The two provinces most affected hold 50% of South Africa’s economy and the destruction of lives and properties there leaves the nation hanging on a delicate balance.

From KwaZulu Natal to Gauteng, the ominous message sung around the country was that of a festering division rearing its head at the earliest call. Not since the nation’s apartheid era has such large-scale violence been seen, and when one considers the place of those whose names are involved in these protests, it forces one to question the real intention of supposedly national struggles.

Zuma, former President of the African National Congress (ANC) and South Africa’s President for nine years left office in 2018 with a pummelled reputation of corruption cases and rape. While he’s since been acquitted of the rape charges, his corruption scandals still hang over his head like dark clouds. He was a leading member of the ANC who fought tooth and nail for freedom of South Africa. He was jailed and came out to become one of the most respected leaders in the country. And then his woes took shape. His Presidency was filled with scandals, including the one that has led him to jail. 

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His refusal to go before a Commission of Inquiry investigsting his corruption cases forced the Constitutional Court to hand him a 15-month jail sentence. Zuma has been on a battle with current President, Cyril Ramaphosa and his sentencing has been interpreted by his supporters as an attempt to belittle, and embarrass their icon.

Ramaphosa, another active player in South Africa’s freedom from apartheid, as a negotiator has been under immense pressure since he came into power three years ago. Rising debt profiles and increasing unemployment has led a section of the populace to turn on him. What was however instructive about the weeks of protests and violence faced, points to a disavowal of his presidency, especially by the Zuma clan.

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During the days of violent protests, more than 300 lives were lost in the Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal Provinces, where Zuma holds a cult hero status. Throughout the protests, the former President hardly made a statement to calm his raging supporters. More than 25,000 troops were deployed to control the situation but that for some time seemed to even stoke the inferno. 

Zuma has since gone to prison. But the ruins left behind by protests, which have now been tagged a “South African thing” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Dubbed the protest capital of the world, South Africa has one of the highest public protest rates of any country in the world. Since 2008, more than two million South Africans have taken to the streets every year in protest, although, none has been as brutal, and bad as this. 

Nobody is Above the Law… After All

When Zuma failed to appear before the Commission for questioning over allegations of corruption in his name, it was a slap on the law. When he was jailed for contempt-of-court, to his supporters, it was a slap on a prominent Zulu. It became a case of the place of the law in a continent where absolutism remains a common practice.

The law prevailed and Zuma is in jail, but with bloodshed, destruction of a promising future and loss of innocent lives.

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What’s the cost of jailing a prominent figure in Africa?

For the court and the law, this is a major victory, but South Africa has been left to writhe in the misery caused by the violent dissent of Zuma’s supporters; many of whom saw the court’s decision as Ramaphosa’s power-pull.

Many South Africans have paid the ultimate price, but the nation must check its past, and future, especially with growing displeasure and discomfort with the leadership of the ANC. It’s an opportunity to redirect the nation to a path of true unity.

Its racist past may be long gone, but the native struggles of a culturally diverse people are still palpable challenges. 

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