South African Riots: The Social Crisis Erupts

In mid-July the social crisis in South Africa (SA) exploded in a week of rioting, looting and arson which swept across the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. By the end of the month over 330 people had been killed and a trail of destruction left across the major cities and shopping centres. An indication of the scale of destruction is indicated by the list of shops, warehouses and cash machines looted. It is reported that 161 shopping malls had been cleaned out, 200 shopping centres looted, 11 warehouses, 1,400 ATMs, 90 pharmacies, 40,000 businesses – and the list goes on to mention factories and other premises. Police were overwhelmed and often stood by while shops were looted; some were even photographed joining the looting and loading up police vehicles with loot. What occurred was a partial breakdown of law and order. This resulted in armed vigilantes setting up road blocks to protect local communities. These triggered even more violence, as in the Phoenix area of Durban, where it is reported that the vigilantes themselves killed 38 people. Order was finally restored by bringing in the army in a quite unprecedented scale. 12,500 soldiers have been mobilised to restore order. It is significant that they were used to protect primary infrastructure such as the port of Durban, the oil refineries and the transport routes from the port to the reef.

The provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng together produce about half of SA’s Gross National Product and, of course, the SA bourgeoisie were quick to put a price on the destruction. They estimate the loss is R50bn or $2.4bn.(1)

Why has this occurred?

Cause of riots and looting

The initial spark which set off this conflagration appears to be the action of loyalists of former president Zuma. They initiated rioting in response to the former president’s jailing for contempt of court. Zuma, who always presented himself as the friend of the downtrodden masses and enemy of the white capitalist class, was, of course, nothing of the sort. During his 9 years as president the condition of the working class deteriorated, as unemployment, inequality and poverty increased. Instead of helping the dispossessed, as he promised, he helped himself and his ANC friends. He presided over a network of loyalists engaged in looting the state. It is estimated $70bn(2) was looted during Zuma’s 9 years as president. Zuma himself was the arch-looter. He also hollowed out state policing, government oversight and intelligence services staffing them with loyalists who enthusiastically joined in the thieving instead of stopping it. This created a vast network of ANC cadres with their snouts in the trough and a climate of impunity. There is thus a whole faction of the ANC who will be threatened if Zuma is brought to book and a real clear-out of the Augean Stables occurs. Clearly they want an amnesty for Zuma and themselves and see his jailing as the thin end of a wedge which will drive them out of their positions and may even lead to their imprisonment. It was in their interests to try and get a pardon for Zuma and making the country ungovernable on Zuma’s arrest seems to have been their strategy. It appears they initiated the looting of shops, the blocking of the main roads connecting the port of Durban to Johannesburg and their henchmen were responsible for the arson. According to the government what we have seen was an attempted coup. The president, Ramaphosa, called it an “attempted insurrection” and the story we are told by the government is that the root of the rioting and looting is an ANC faction fight for control of the state. The fact that they used the army to guard key installations such as ports, oil refineries and broadcasting stations shows that they themselves took this narrative seriously. If it was an attempted coup the Zuma faction are pretty hopeless, and their violence has only strengthened Ramaphosa’s hand. A purge of the ANC corruption would, however, probably split the organisation, and it is doubtful Ramaphosa is prepared to do that. The “attempted coup” explanation is nonetheless very convenient for Ramaphosa because it deflects from the social crisis which has been getting steadily worse during his three and a half years as president. For the unemployed and destitute a different story emerges.

Once the looting had been started it spread like wild fire and the Zuma loyalists were quite unable to control it. In reality they detonated a time bomb which was already on the point of exploding. A few statistics indicate the desperate condition of the SA working class, particularly the long term unemployed. Officially the unemployment rate is 33% and 11 million people are without work, but when those who have stopped looking for work are added it is 43%.(3) Some of these people are, however, employed in the informal economy. There are 12.5 million people on state benefits; about 20% of the population and over half the country’s population of 60 million live in poverty. The state has been trying to cut the amount spent on welfare and a grant of R350 (£17.50) per month for the unemployed was stopped in April.(4) This, and the strict lockdown imposed at the end of June, which shut down most of the informal economy, were additional blows for the destitute. Even the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) which, together with the SA so-called “Communist” Party, is in a tripartite alliance with the ruling ANC government, admitted on its website that:

Unemployment is a ticking time bomb that will explode in the face of policymakers and decision makers…millions of South Africans are hungry and unemployed. Since they have been systematically isolated from the mainstream economy and their survivalist economy is constantly sabotaged, they have reached a point where they feel they have nothing to lose. The crisis of poverty, inequality and unemployment cannot be explained away.(5)

Millions of the unemployed have moved to the cities looking for work and live in informal settlements consisting of shacks. The shack dwellers association Abahlali baseMjondolo now claims to have 100,000 members. That the destitute and hungry were so close to the shopping malls and supermarkets explains how the rioting and looting spread so quickly. Looters were largely young black men affected by unemployment and poverty made worse by the pandemic, and looting was initially for food.

Thapelo Mohapi, spokesperson for Abahlali baseMjondolo, stated that the unrest reflected despair over years of joblessness and hunger worsened by the pandemic.

This was not a Zuma issue — it was a ticking bomb.

In Durban’s Umgeni Park area, one shack settlement sits just below affluent leafy suburbs and warehouses. Thapelo Mohapi adds:

People were even cooking wild plants under lockdown. [During the looting]… people were taking food and saying ‘I don’t know who Zuma is’. While some people took food, the Zuma supporters went and burned.(6)

A further factor, which the spokesman for Abahlali points to and which the ANC cannot disguise, is the flagrant inequality which exists in the country. This is now much worse than it was under apartheid and according to the World Bank SA’s inequality is the worst of any country worldwide. Income distribution is such that the richest 10% take 65% of the total income of the country while the poorest 50% get 6%.(7)

It is clear that this was an eruption of resistance by the destitute, hungry and downtrodden masses which a section of the SA ruling class tried to manipulate for their own ends. It was an eruption of the sort we have seen recently in Cuba(8), in Colombia, in the US(9) and Iran(10) and elsewhere. What links all these events is, of course, the capitalist crisis which the ruling class worldwide is trying to solve by screwing down the living conditions of the working class. The ANC government is the executive arm of SA capitalism and, despite its incompetence and corruption, is carrying out the measures the world capitalist class believes can rescue this decaying system.

ANC and the working class

Almost three decades of ANC rule have shown the true content of African nationalism. It is nothing more or less than capitalism controlled by people with black faces, and it is violently opposed to the interests of the working class. The years since the ANC took power in 1994 have shown that they oppose the working class just as violently as the apartheid regime which they replaced. We only need to mention the Marikana massacre of August 2012, where its police shot and killed 34 striking miners, to illustrate this.(11) For the SA working class giving support to the ANC has been shown to be a disaster. We wrote in our paper Workers' Voice in 1990:

Many black workers look to Mandela as the man who will free them from exploitation and hardship. They are greatly deceived. … In fact the ANC’s objectives have nothing to do with the working class’s interests, they are to use the power of the state to foster a black capitalist class. … South African workers have no interest in placing themselves in the infantry of the African nationalists.(12)

And this is precisely what has occurred. The ANC has used the state to create a narrow echelon of African capitalists, some of them multi-millionaires, while the working class has suffered unemployment and poverty and hunger worse than under apartheid. The president, Ramaphosa, whose assets at the last count were $450 million, is a representative of the few, mostly ANC members, who have enriched themselves via their control of the state or its policies such as the Black Economic Empowerment programme. Meanwhile, as Abahlali tells us, the shack dwellers are forced to survive by eating wild plants! Further, according to the Abahlali, the government is trying to turn sections of the destitute against each other, using tribalism, nationalism and race as a means of deflecting the anger of the masses away from the government. The housing shortage in Durban, for example, is being blamed by the authorities on Xhosa people moving from the Eastern Cape, on Mozambique and Malawi proletarians who have moved to the city looking for work. ANC thugs have been attacking Indians, whom the British brought to Natal as indentured labourers in the period from 1860 to 1910, and telling them to go back to India. The ANC is stooping to precisely the same strategy as that used by the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

The developments of the last 27 years show the disastrous consequences for the working class of supporting the nationalist struggle. Instead of the issues in South Africa being posed in terms of class the ANC posed them in terms of race just as the apartheid regime did. Their promises to the workers were worthless. Subjection of the SA working class to the bourgeois nationalist forces of the ANC has been a tragic mistake for which the price is now being paid in hunger and blood. The justification for such a subjection put forward by Stalinists and Trotskyists is shown to be complete nonsense as we have explained in previous texts.(13) Their claim that SA capitalism was based on apartheid and ending apartheid would bring it crashing down, and consequently cause a crisis in global imperialism, can only be described as fantasy. The ANC was brought to power by the SA bourgeoisie to rescue SA capital from the cul-de-sac into which apartheid had steered it. Despite its incompetence and corruption it has done this but, of course, at the expense of the SA working class.

The way forward

Deprivation, hunger and oppression are what the working class faces, not just in SA but worldwide. The protests in Cuba, in China or in Iran show that the various forms of government which the ruling class gives itself make little difference. Grinding down the condition of the working class is the universal strategy of our rulers. It is a strategy dictated by the capitalist system itself and the crisis it today faces. Moreover, murderous violence, as at Marikana, is what our rulers will not hesitate to resort to protect the system. Yet the system needs to be overthrown.

Rioting and looting represent an elemental upsurge of resistance to current conditions but they do not offer a way forward. The capitalist class is able to contain rioting and looting. In fact the police often stand by and let looting take place, as in the US riots in 2020, since the looters go home with their loot and the protests can become part of BLM-style reformism. Riots are used to justify further repressive laws which will be used against the working class as soon as it raises its head. What was lacking in the SA riots was a voice from the proletariat opposing the system itself. What is needed is a working class organisation able to give direction to the seething discontent which engulfs SA workers, and also workers worldwide, and point the way to a higher form of society. To achieve this we need to build a class party and a revolutionary programme so that the future revival of class struggle will have the objective of overthrowing this class divided society; of breaking the iniquitous relationship between labour and capital, and producing a society where the means of production are socialised, where wage labour is abolished, and where production is for need.


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(1) The SA GDP for 2020 was £301bn so estimated destruction was about 0.8% GDP.

(2) Figure from Judith February, SA lawyer and journalist, in discussion with Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times 8/7/21

(3) See Financial Times 1/8/21

(4) The fact that this was reinstated after the riots indicates that the regime recognises it as a cause of the riots.



(7) Reported in Financial Times 1/8/21

(8) Cuba is the Latest Episode in the Death Agony of (State) Capitalism

(9) The Murder of George Floyd: The End of Racism Starts with the Death of Capitalism

(10) Iran: On Oil and Troubled Water

(11) South Africa - Striking Miners Massacred by Police

(12) See Workers’ Voice, No. 51

(13) South Africa's New Turmoil

Monday, August 16, 2021