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South Africa’s Riots Spark People’s Deep-seated Anger: Catholic Peace Entity

A man wearing a helmet approaches a burning van in Johannesburg Credit: Denis Hurley Peace Institute

The ongoing violence in South Africa that started with riots following the jailing of the country’s former President Jacob Zuma has very little to do with the former President, the leadership of an international Catholic peace entity has told ACI Africa, adding that people are expelling their anger after many years of suffering.

Johan Viljoen, the Director of Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI) told ACI Africa, in an interview, that the riots, which started in Zuma’s backyard, KwaZulu-Natal, eventually spreading to South Africa’s capital, Johannesburg, sparked people’s deep-seated frustrations over poor governance.

“The violence we are witnessing has very little, if anything, to do with former President Jacob Zuma’s jailing. The riots have turned into looting and destruction of property and people’s frustrations are clearly coming to the fore,” Mr. Viljoen says in the Monday, July 12 interview with ACI Africa.

He adds, “People are suffering from extreme poverty and some are risking their lives, dodging live bullets to steal food from people’s shops because they are hungry.”

Riots erupted in KwaZulu-Natal Province after Mr. Zuma handed himself over to prison authorities on July 7 under order from the Constitutional Court, which held him in contempt for repeatedly refusing to appear before a commission investigating allegations of corruption during his nine years as South Africa’s President that ended in 2018.

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Mr. Viljoen told ACI Africa that the situation of the country, especially in Johannesburg where a majority of the population are the Zulu (former President Zuma’s ethnic tribe), had deteriorated over the weekend.

“There is shooting everywhere. People are standing on bridges overlooking the highways and shooting aimlessly. Burning cars can also be seen on the streets and people are running in all directions with looted items,” the DHPI Director who is based in South Africa told ACI Africa.

He says that the people’s suffering has been aggravated by the COVID-19 lockdown in the country, which left many without any sources of income.

According to the official of the peace organ of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC), public service delivery in the country has deteriorated during the pandemic, leaving people aggrieved on how the government is running the country.

“People have witnessed a total mess in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout where a negligible percentage have accessed the vaccination against the target masses,” Mr. Viljoen says, and adds, “There is zero social assistance from the government and the people are not happy about the way the government is handling the economic crisis.”

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The official of the peace and charity foundation that is monitoring violence in a number of African countries tells ACI Africa that some regions of South Africa have been without running water for two weeks and that electricity is heavily rationed all over the country.

Crime has also gone high in the country owing to the high levels of poverty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The protests and violence in South Africa come as the country battles a severe third wave of the coronavirus pandemic driven by the highly contagious delta variant.

Mr. Viljoen says that the more than a year of restrictions has aggravated poverty and unemployment across the Southern African nation, which has long suffered from extremely high levels of joblessness and inequalities that have wrecked the country since the end of the apartheid.

He says that South Africa has long lost its glory and discourages people from other countries from looking at the country as the ultimate destination.

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“This is not the best time to travel to South Africa with the aim of looking for a better life,” Mr. Viljoen says.

He explains, “What many people don’t know is that South Africa is no longer the country it used to be 20 years ago. Many neighboring countries that have suffered from decades of conflicts are way better than South Africa. Even before COVID-19, South Africa’s youth unemployment was at 70 percent.”

“South Africa is a country in serious problems,” the DHPI official further asserts, and adds, “The country today is a mere illusion of past development. The only thing that makes us look like we are doing well is the country’s infrastructure that was built many years ago. But that too has deteriorated and money meant to improve the infrastructure such as public roads is misappropriated. Even foreign investors have been withdrawing owing to corruption in the country.”

The DHPI official expresses concerns about the violence that has already reportedly claimed 10 lives saying it may spread further and cause more damage if not handled immediately.

He urges South Africans to refrain from violence saying, “It is okay, and provided for constitutionally to protest against poor governance. This should however be done in an orderly manner. The ongoing looting, burning of cars and buildings and looting is therefore uncalled for.”

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Meanwhile, the DHPI Director has expressed optimism that the jailing of former president Zuma provides a lesson for other African leaders who have brought their countries to their knees because of corruption.

“Many African countries are very poor because of corrupt leaders. We hope that the jailing of Jacob Zuma is only the beginning of a process that will see suspected corrupt leaders booked to answer for their actions,” he says.

Mr. Viljoen adds, in reference to the insecurity in Cabo Delgado, “In Mozambique, for instance, gas company Total was giving the government money to support soldiers who were fighting militants. But when the company discovered that the money meant for soldiers was being misappropriated and that the soldiers were no longer fighting, it withdrew its support.”

“We hope that South Africa isn’t just fighting internal political battles with the jailing of Zuma. We pray that this time, the war is against corruption,” the Director of DHPI says.