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After protests and looting ravaged South Africa, the nation wonders: what now?

DURBAN, South Africa – The feeling of shock was palpable as a handful of locals stared at a crumbling shopping center.

Windows were smashed, the parking lot was filled with debris, and “Free Zuma” was spray painted on the facade of The Ridge, a once pristine center that sits on Shallcross Road, a main thoroughfare in Durban, a city of 600,000 inhabitants on the eastern coast of South Africa.

“Things can be salvaged… but there is an impact in the community,” said Richard Ncube, 40, a former policeman whose cell phone repair stand looking at The Ridge was also robbed in a violence that rocked the ridge. the country following the detention of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court last month in his separate corruption trial.

“People who stay here buy here,” he said. “Now it’s quite difficult for them. Where are they going to get food?

Across South Africa, people are examining the damage caused by political riots. The city of Durban has estimated damage and lost property at over $ 1 billion, which, with 129,000 jobs at risk, could represent an impact of $ 1.4 billion on the port city’s gross domestic product. .

Richard Ncube, left, and Dawood Phillip had devices and parts stolen from their cellphone repair shop during widespread unrest in Durban, South Africa.Linda Givetash / for NBC News

South Africa’s struggle to end the white-only regime and brutal apartheid system without plunging into civil war has made it an international synonym for a victorious fight for democracy. Despite the gains made over the past two decades, and despite currently leading Africa’s third-largest economy, millions of South Africans are still struggling, especially during the deteriorating economic conditions fueled by the coronavirus pandemic. .

Violence like what happened last month shows South Africa must reduce historic levels of inequality and crack down on official corruption, which experts say has fueled the unrest. If not, such flash points could become more frequent, fear experts and residents.

“Our children will grow up knowing that looting is not a crime,” Ncube said. “In 10 years, we will do it every year.

“People are sitting with nothing”

That Zuma supporters have taken to the streets to express their frustration is no surprise, said Narnia Bohler-Muller, a professor at the Human Sciences Research Council, the country’s public research agency.

“People are sitting with nothing, so it is very easy to fan the fires in this regard and take advantage of the feelings of frustration in the communities,” she said.

Poverty, along with unresolved ethnic and tribal divisions, will also need to be addressed for South Africa to emerge from its precarious situation, Bohler-Muller said in Pretoria.

At the heart of the country’s unrest is the African National Congress, a long-standing anti-apartheid party that came to power in 1994 after the country’s first free elections.

The party’s big tent approach allowed Zuma, a Zulu, to be president for nine years. Zuma won the support of his fellow Zulus for the party that was previously led by the Xhosa peoples – Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela and his successor in the presidency, Thabo Mbeki.

A gas station outside the Ridge Shopping Center in Durban, South Africa, which was looted during riots.Linda Givetash / for NBC News

Zulu speakers make up over a quarter of the population, making it the most widely spoken first language in the multilingual nation; almost 15 percent of people speak isiXhosa.

Unlike his predecessors – one a freedom fighter and international icon and the other widely regarded as a dry technocrat – Zuma relies on an appeal resembling that of former President Donald Trump in the United States, said Bohler-Muller.

“There is this relationship that is built around race, ethnicity, concern for the poor,” she said. “And he can mobilize his supporters quite easily.”

The Gini index, which measures inequalities, has stagnated since the end of apartheid, hovering above 0.6, making South Africa the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank.

Black Africans made up the largest proportion of people living below the poverty line in 2015 government data, at 47%, while whites made up just 0.4%. On the other end of the spectrum, black Africans made up 11% of the richest households in 2015 while they made up 81% of the total population.

ANC card holder Trevor Kamato, 30, said he was a strong supporter of Zuma and current President Cyril Ramaphosa. While he doesn’t believe the violence diminished support for Zuma, he said it affected the movement calling for his release.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma faces corruption and fraud charges linked to an arms deal in the 1990s. He has pleaded not guilty this year.Nic Bothma / AFP – Getty Images File

“It took a certain level of merit away from the event itself,” he said. “It gives the impression that it was done for nefarious purposes.”

While Kamato, who is unemployed and lives in Johannesburg, acknowledged the government’s failures, he also said that Zuma had done a lot of good for the country.

“He raised or spoke out on some very important facets of the economy,” he said.

Zuma’s administration had said that during her tenure it delivered millions of homes to the needy, as well as housing subsidies, and provided subsidies to more than 17 million people in poverty.

That same year, a public inquiry was opened into a range of corruption allegations involving Zuma, ranging from granting preferential treatment to companies that had long-standing relationships with him and his family to appointing ministers. of the Cabinet for the benefit of private commercial interests. He also faces bribery and fraud charges in a separate trial over a 1990s arms deal, to which he pleaded not guilty this year.

The cost of his tenure to the economy exceeds $ 35 billion, if not double, Ramaphosa told the Financial Times Africa Summit in London in 2019.

Zuma’s supporters are largely a vocal minority. His approval rate when he left office in 2018 was only 30%, experts said. But the effect of the unrest can have far-reaching effects both at home and abroad, said Leaza Jernberg, a geopolitics and international security expert based in Johannesburg.

“We have ports and infrastructure that a lot of inland countries don’t have, and that gives us an economic and political advantage,” she said. “I think this is going to be our biggest concern, how do we rebuild this image of South Africa as a gateway to Africa, and is that still appropriate?”

“South Africa is for the ANC”

What has become very clear in recent weeks is how much confidence in official institutions has eroded. In 2018, just 30 percent of South Africans said they trusted the national government, up from 67 percent in 2004, according to a national survey.

Support for the century-old ANC, the emblem of modern South Africa, has also waned in recent years. In the 2019 election, he won 57% of the popular vote, up from 65% a decade earlier.

Enduring loyalty, however, leaves some disillusioned.

“South Africa is for the ANC. They can do anything, ”said Dawood Phillip, 28, an employee of the looted cell phone repair shop in The Ridge.

A supporter of former South African President Jacob Zuma holds an African National Congress flag in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal on July 2. Emmanuel Croset / AFP – Getty Images file

Phillip appears to be a natural constituent of the party, but he has said that if he were to vote now, he would no longer know who to choose.

“I don’t see anyone talking about good things,” he said.

Bohler-Muller said the Democratic Alliance is seen as too white for the majority black electorate, while the Economic Freedom Fighters are seen as too radical in their leftist ideology.

Jernberg said that until the ANC rebuilds its image or dissipates or another party emerges, it will be up to the public, and perhaps the cities, to define the course of the country.

The courts are also seen as a beacon of hope. Whatever the verdict of the corruption cases, it will send a clear message to the public, assuring them that no one is above the law.

“It will convince people because the tribunal is trustworthy,” Bohler-Muller said.

It’s a sentiment that even a Zuma supporter can agree with.

“The rule of law must always be respected,” Kamato said. “Regardless of your political stature … if there is any evidence of wrongdoing against someone, these people must be prosecuted.”



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