Malls have been torched, stores have been emptied, businesses have been destroyed, and over 300 people have been killed ― many crushed to death in looting stampedes ― during the worst violence that South Africa has seen since the country’s apartheid era, and that violence has been inflamed by COVID lockdown conditions.
The protests erupted in the Gauteng and KawZulu-Natal provinces in response to the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court on June 29, after he refused to testify regarding charges of corruption and bribery during a state-backed inquiry into his presidency. South Africa’s constitutional court gave him a 15-month jail sentence.
Gabriele Steinhauser explained in a Monday Wall Street Journal podcast that while Zuma still had a base of supporters from which some rioting might be expected, the unproportionally large scale of the violence must be attributed to conditions of extreme poverty and fear that were exacerbated by COVID lockdowns.
The initial “level 5” COVID restrictions in South Africa were severe, including a nighttime curfew, reduced shopping hours, and prohibitions on any type of gathering or travel outside the home except to purchase or supply essential goods. Non-essential businesses, including restaurants, were shut down entirely ― leaving many out of work. Since March 2020, the country has vacillated between lockdown levels as COVID cases grew and declined in waves.
South Africa has struggled with stark inequality and poverty for decades, but repeated pandemic restrictions on businesses took a huge toll on citizens who were already struggling to survive. Their anger rose as restrictions destroyed fragile businesses that they were just beginning to rebuild after the initial wave of COVID cases.
“The proportion of people who lost their income [due to COVID] was just incredibly high…. 45% of households ran out of food,” Steinhauser said. “Lots of people lost their jobs, or even if they weren’t outright fired, they didn’t get paid anymore. So especially in their poor communities that just created a lot of misery and suffering and fear.”
South African president Cyril Ramaphosa announced in late June that he was reimposing travel bans, business closures, and another curfew in response to the spreading Delta variant. The resulting fear, hunger, and desperation of thousands of citizens made them prime candidates for civil unrest once it was sparked by Zuma’s imprisonment a couple days later.
“The people have just had enough,” Steinhauser said.
Premier David Makhura of the Gauteng province pleaded with the people over the state South African Broadcasting Corp. “We understand that those unemployed have inadequate food. We understand that the situation has been made worse by the pandemic. But this looting is undermining our businesses here. It is undermining our economy, our community. It is undermining everything.”
Now that the violence has been largely quelled, the country is facing the economic repercussions of the looting as they look to rebuild infrastructure amidst the rise of the COVID-19 Delta variant. Riots and lootings have cost the province’s gross domestic product approximately $1.4 billion, striking a blow to citizens’ hopes for the economic renaissance that Ramaphosa promised when he was elected in 2018.