OPINION | Protests are not about Zuma but the unchanged social structure of SA, 27 years into democracy

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In 1793 France, the Reign of Terror commenced as a rallying cry against a system that encouraged the richer to be richer and left the poor for dead. The society was divided into the wealthy few and the many poor and destitute. As a result, tensions were high. An estimated 27 000 were killed. The widespread starvation and executions popularised a saying attributed to philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau: “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”

The historic ruling by the Apex Court of our country read out by Justice Sisi Khampepe to sentence former president Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court has been hailed as a victory for democracy and the rule of law by some and a miscarriage of justice by others. Those who support the latter argue that:

1. All commissions of inquiries in South Africa are established under the Commissions Act, which clearly stipulate that a witness who fails to come and testify should be imprisoned for no more than 6 months.

2. Former apartheid president, P.W Botha, refused to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and was given a fine of R10 000 and a suspended sentence of 12 months in jail with his age considered.

3. It’s unprecedented in South Africa that a contempt of court judgment does not have a suspended sentence.

However, this article will not discuss the merits or demerits of that sentence by the Constitutional Court. For this article, the protests that have ensued take precedence.

Since the former president handed himself over to the police, protests in the name of #FreeZumaNow have led to looting of malls and the destruction of private property and in true domino effect: starting off in KwaZulu-Natal, spilling over to Gauteng and Mpumalanga. The already ailing economy exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly take a blow, therefore, the question then arises: with pervasive poverty and record high unemployment rates, why would people destroy property and loot, all in the name of freeing the former president. Why do they ‘search’ for him in malls instead of the Estcourt Correctional Facility which he is being kept in? Why have these protests become a spree of criminal activities?

The answer: these protests are a reflection of the frustration of Black people who are in the peripheries. The destruction of property and looting is a result of poverty and inequality – these are structural and deliberately designed through unequal education or lack of access thereof, limited economic activity enforced by spatial injustice to put Black people at the bottom of the food chain to inherit a life of destitution.  South Africa is characterised by a very tense post-apartheid situation where justice and equality are constantly being reviewed by the citizens, through their participation in the political environment, after realising that the constitution is slow in bringing about their material benefits of being a citizen. The South African government is struggling to adequately cater for Black people’s social and economic needs.

These protests are not about the incarceration of the former president, they are about how the strategic sectors of the economy do not represent the broad demographics of the population; they are about how the ANC is in government but not in power; they are about poverty and unemployment having a Black face; these protests are about the ANC government that has failed ordinary Black South Africans and today South Africa is the most unequal society in the world; these protests are a reflection of how, in 1994, the government changed but the social structure remained the same.

In short, people are frustrated. People are hungry. And the incarceration of the former president was what they needed to let the frustration out.

But aside from the immediate material harm caused by this looting and destruction of property, in the longer term it could damage our society irreparably. Until South Africa fast-tracks the wheels of transformation, this vicious cycle will continue.  – By Vusi Gumbi, a Masters candidate in Politics at the University of Johannesburg and the winner of One Day Leader Season 8.