Things Fall Apart: 8 Days of Unrest in South Africa

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Youth reporters from across South Africa take to the streets to speak with their communities in an attempt to reckon with the violent unrest that erupted in July 2021 following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.

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Judge Sisi Khampepe: The Constitutional Court makes the following order: Mr. Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, is sentenced to undergo 15 months imprisonment.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: That’s Judge Sisi Khampepe. On June 29th, she delivered the verdict that sentenced former South African President Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison with no option to appeal. The verdict did not go down well with many of Zuma’s supporters.

News reporter: I can tell you that, as you can see behind me, these ANC members from Mpumalanga Province, they say they are here at the former President’s home to support him, as he is left with only a few days to hand himself over to the nearest police station.

Zuma supporter: Shoot us, mos! We want to die for Zuma! Why you do like this? Always you give Zuma a serious problem!

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: On July 7th, shortly before the midnight deadline, Zuma handed himself over to the authorities at the Estcourt Correctional Centre, and there began his jail term.

What followed was perhaps the worst violence South Africa has experienced since the end of Apartheid.

In KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng, people took to the streets and raided shopping centers, burned warehouses. They shut down entire neighborhoods. Video footage shows people walking away with large appliances and electronics in shopping carts. But for the most part, people were taking food from grocery stores, saying that their families were starving after months of COVID lockdowns. Armed community members and vigilante groups took to the streets to protect their property. And the government sent military troops out to restore a sense of calm.

While Zuma’s arrest was the trigger, the unrest quickly took on a life of its own. Many say that it spiraled because South Africans feel the government is not meeting their needs, nor listening to their concerns.

I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe from the Children’s Radio Foundation. Today, we hear from youth reporters at radio stations across South Africa who took to the streets and tried to figure out what happened that week in July.

And what’s next?

Interviewee 1, Alexandra: I was doing grocery shopping. And as soon as I finished and was making my way home, I started to see a group of people running inside the mall. And that’s when I knew that something big and shocking is going to happen. I then rushed home. That’s when I turned on eNCA for the news. It was actually shocking for me, because you could see that people are running up and down. People are stealing, like they are taking stuff from the shops. They are burning shops. So that’s when I knew that this is so bad, because now people are going to lose jobs and there was stampedes and some people are going to die.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: By July 13th, on the fifth day of unrest, 72 people had lost their lives. 1,234 people had been arrested, mostly in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal. But the unrest also struck the city of Johannesburg. At Alex FM, a radio station in metro Johannesburg, where a group of youth reporters host radio programs for youth every Saturday, looters entered the building and stole over 4 million rands worth of broadcast equipment.

Overnight the violence spread to two other provinces – Mpumalanga, and the Northern Cape.

Vigilante: Stop the looting, we’ll stop the shooting. If you are looting, we are shooting, because we’ve got no food to eat. No ___, no nothing!

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: In the face of a situation that seemed impossible to control, vigilante groups mobilised to protect their own business parks and neighbourhoods.

Interviewee, Emalahleni: Some community members stood their ground. They wouldn’t let people in. They didn’t it want to be looted, they didn’t want to be part of the statistic of another mall looted. So, you’ve got people standing outside the mall and saying, “You know, this will not happen in my neighborhood.”

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: At the end of it all, 3,407 people were arrested. 342 people had died. The week of unrest, well it cost the economy a reported 50 billion rands.

Many youth reporters and their communities found themselves reeling in the aftermath. And wondering, “What’s next?”

Interviewee 1, Aganang: They affect me in a way that I cannot concentrate on my school work or even study. I always have thoughts of what might happen to me if the looters break into the school. So it’s very draining, emotionally and mentally draining.

Interviewee 2, Alexandra: Because of the looting, we do not have a couple of warehouses that were used as major points of arrivals to a lot of companies that would import or export food in and out of South Africa. So economically, it was bad and it didn’t bring any changes. If anything, it made things from bad to worse. So it was a very bad decision that the country had made to loot. And here we are, reaping the repercussions. As for the looting, it took me steps back, because I was on a – I was on a mission to get a job at Pan and once that came and hit, as we all might all understand that Pan has now officially been fully looted, I lost the opportunity that I thought might change my life.

Interviewee 3, Alexandra: In my yard we stay with people who are working at retail stores. So seeing them not going to work really broke my heart, because they were used to going to work. And they are they’re youngsters. Like you understand with the problem that we have in our country of unemployment, now you have to stay home.

Interviewee 4, Alexandra: Personally, I felt very vulnerable because of the looting. It just shut down my confidence, that I’ll never, ever make it in life, or there’s just a delay in my life. And that there’s no way that I’m going to get a job.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: When the TV cameras had moved on to the next story, communities were left to reconcile with the violence and the disruption, and the broken trust.

Interviewee, Emalahleni: Yeah, it got people on two sides – who the ones who were for it or the ones who were against it. In a way it just separated the haves and the have-nots. Those who have were against the looting. Those who don’t have, they saw it as a positive way to put out the message that, “Yo, you guys don’t deliver on your promises. You guys are corrupt, and we’re tired so… the looting had to happen.”

Interviewee 4, Alexandra: The looting made us realize that a lot of people are living in poverty and it’s mostly black people. That’s what I noticed about the looting that it’s a lot of people that are going through a difficult time. It’s not like they wanted to loot because they liked it, they knew it was wrong, but a lot of them were providing for their families.

Interviewee, Emalahleni: It goes back to the whole thing of the Level Five Lockdown from last year. People lost their jobs. People ran out of money. So the looting was a way of them saying, ‘OK. Since you guys have no answers and you just keep making promises, you guys you’ll just have to reimburse the malls and the shops that we’re gonna loot because we are hungry, and we’re trying to look for jobs, but there’s nothing so…

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: Overall, our youth reporters expressed an overwhelming sense of sadness at the levels of desperation that led people to steal basics, such as food, and diapers.

Interviewee 2, Aganang: I think in our country, we are facing two types of challenges when it comes to looting. We have a challenge of government officials looting, of which we, all of us, we know about it. We have seen how – the damage it has caused. It has a very serious impact and negatively so on the country’s economy.

Interviewee, Emalahleni: Deliver on your promises. Food parcels for example, they’re supposed to go to the poor, but they were given to families and close friends of people who knew somebody who has access to the food parcels, which is kind of greedy because these are the same people who have food, who have a stable income. But then they just want government freebies. You know, they want to freeload.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: Just like everyone else, young people are searching for meaning in all of this.

Interviewee 1, Atlantis: It was bound to happen due to the condition the government left us in. It happened because of years of neglect to the public and people.

Interviewee 2, Atlantis:  People were tired and they were angry and they wanted their voices to be heard. And that’s why I think the looting happened. Did it go too far? Yes, but it opened a lot of eyes for people to see that there’s problems in South Africa that we need to face, that we need to fix.

Lesedi Mogoatlhe: Again, it comes back to an issue of what young people think their leaders are doing for them… and what they aren’t.

That’s it for today. I’m Lesedi Mogatlhe, and this episode was  produced by the team at the Radio Workshop. That’s me, Jo Jackson, Andile Msomi, Martha O’Donovan, and Dhashen Moodely. A special thanks to the youth reporters from the Children’s Radio Foundation, who do the brave work of asking tough questions. That’s Logan Henson, Willson Sekhukhune, Siya Mokoena, Sibonelo Sithole, Andiswa Hlengwa, Abigail Maedza, Thandeka Thusini, Tshegofatso Nakedi, and Puseletso Tjiyane.

Also thanks to the community radio stations they report from: Aganang FM, Alex FM, Radio Atlantis, Emalahleni FM, Moutse FM, GLFM, Umgungundlovu FM, and Vibe FM.

Newsreel footage from The Guardian, eNCA, and IOL. Music is by Blue Dot Sessions.

This podcast and the work of the Children’s Radio Foundation wouldn’t be possible without support from UNICEF South Africa and the Nedbank Foundation. Africa No Filter, the Open Society Foundation for South Africa, Fossil Foundation, and the American Corner in Cape Town, a program of the US Mission to South Africa….

Visit our website for more information and to support our work at childrensradiofoundation.org

Until next time…