The terrible scenes of violence that have erupted throughout South Africa over the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma illustrate that, 27 years after the end of apartheid, anger at the widespread levels of inequality and poverty that continue to affect large swathes of the country has not abated.
In what threatens to become the worst crisis the country has experienced since the end of the apartheid era in 1994, scores of people have been killed, dozens of businesses burnt to the ground and roads closed in the cacophony of violence that has taken place since Mr Zuma was jailed for contempt of court.
In one of the worst incidents, ten people were reported to have been killed in a stampede at a shopping mall in Soweto as soldiers and police sought to quell widespread looting.
The rioting has had a devastating impact on South Africa’s already struggling economy. Johannesburg, for example, is almost completely shut down, with shops either closed or empty and residents struggling to find basic goods such as gas for cooking and heating in the middle of a bitterly cold winter.
One of the more striking images of the unrest was a mother throwing her two-year-old girl to safety from a burning tower block to a waiting crowd below in the city of Durban. The mother, 26-year-old Naledi Manyoni, said she had been on the 16th floor when the fire started and, having run down the stairs, threw her child to safety. Thankfully the girl survived.
The outbreak of violence, in which supermarkets and businesses have been deliberately targeted by what the authorities have condemned as “criminal gangs”, reveals a side of South African society rarely seen by the outside world.
For, far from fulfilling Nelson Mandela’s ambition of becoming a “rainbow nation”, where the bitter divisions between whites and blacks caused by the apartheid era were to be set aside, modern-day South Africa remains, as demonstrated by the latest unrest, as divided as ever.
And much of the blame for this terrible state of affairs must rest with the ruling African National Congress, which has run South Africa almost like a one-party state ever since gaining power in the historic 1994 general election that resulted in Mr Mandela’s election as the country’s first black president.
As a journalist covering that historic election, I was struck by how much genuine adulation the legendary anti-apartheid campaigner attracted from both the white and black supporters who thronged his rallies. The magic of Mandela’s appeal, though, did not last long beyond the veteran freedom-fighter securing victory and the ANC being installed in power.
Instead of building on the firm and prosperous economic foundations bequeathed to the ANC by the previous apartheid era, the party has spent much of the past three decades involved in bitter internal infighting, with accusations of widespread corruption rife.
While the initial protests were more political in nature, and directed at Mr Zuma’s imprisonment last week over his refusal to co-operate with the court over fraud allegations, the widespread looting and attacks on prosperous businesses that have followed point to the simmering tensions caused by the failure of the ANC’s economic programme, a situation that has been made immeasurably worse by the heavy-handed government restrictions that have been imposed to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
Harsh measures such as a lockdowns, curfews and bans on the sale of goods such as cigarettes have increased the anger felt towards the government, which was already deeply unpopular because of its woeful mismanagement of the economy, with unemployment standing at a record 32.6 per cent in the first three months of 2021. The jailing of Mr Zuma, therefore, has simply acted as a catalyst for the widespread discontent felt throughout the country, while at the same time fuelling tensions between key tribal leaders.
The anti-government violence has been particularly prominent in Mr Zuma’s fiefdom of KwaZulu-Natal in the east of the country, where anger among the Zulu population has evoked memories of the bloody racial violence that preceded the 1994 election, and at one point threatened to tip the country into all-out civil war.
At the heart of the current unrest lies the bitter rivalry between Mr Zuma and his successor as president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Tensions between the two men have been simmering ever since Mr Zuma was forced to resign in 2018 over allegations that he was involved in widespread fraud, claims that ultimately resulted in him being put on trial.
Mr Ramaphosa’s appointment as his successor as president was broadly welcomed because the new leader was seen as someone who had a better understanding of South Africa’s business community, and who would work with them to rebuild the economy for the benefit of all South Africans. But Mr Ramaphosa’s support for South African industrialists led to accusations from Mr Zuma’s left-wing supporters that their new president was little more than an apologist for the white-run economy, an argument that, as the unemployment rate among young blacks continued to grow, simply fuelled the growth in anti-government sentiment.
Consequently, the protests that are currently sweeping the country are as much directed at South Africa’s business community as they are an attempt to highlight what many of Mr Zuma’s supporters believe are trumped-up charges against the former South African president.
To his credit, Mr Ramaphosa is certainly not underestimating the challenge that now faces his country. In an address to the nation on Monday, he acknowledged the violence “has thrown into stark relief what we already know – that levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality in our society are unsustainable".
This is not the vision for South Africa that Mr Mandela set out when he first became president. Unless the ANC under Mr Ramaphosa’s leadership can arrest the country’s alarming decline, South Africa’s future looks increasingly bleak.
Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National