A US-based constitutional law expert has affirmed the view that South Africa recently experienced an attempted insurrection and has drawn distinct similarities with the riots on Capitol Hill in Washington on 6 January.

Professor Penelope Andrews of New York Law School believes the riots, looting, and arson in KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng were part of a broader attempt to render the country ungovernable and in an effort to thwart a legal process that landed former President Jacob Zuma behind bars for contempt of court.

Similarly, rioters in Washington sought to stop the legal process of certifying Joe Biden’s Presidential win, rendering former President Donald Trump a one-term President, and thereby exposing him to greater legal scrutiny.

The 6 January attack on Capitol Hill in Washington or events in South Africa that began on 9 July in response to the arrest of former President Zuma are analogous, at least according to Law Professor Penelope Andrews.

“I think that the analogy with the capitol riots is actually quite apt. The dictionary definition of insurrection is a violent uprising against an authority or the state and I would say that this was an attempt if you look at the facts in South Africa, this was an attempt to incite a violent uprising, so I think that it was if one could think about it in legal terms, an attempted insurrection.”

Andrews sees multiple similarities between the attempts at insurrection in both countries in that the rioters, at the very least in part, sought to stop a legal process, in the United States the certification of President Biden’s election victory, and in South Africa to stop the legal detention and incarceration of former President Zuma.

She also explains that both Trump and Zuma seek to connect their personal legal challenges to that of the country while both use every maneuver available to them to circumvent or block any accountability.

“President Trump was intent on staying in office so he wouldn’t have to face a range of legal problems, and ex-President Zuma has also shown himself not wanting to be held accountable and to escape the reach of the law – that’s the third. The fourth analogy I see is loyal, loyal supporters despite the facts, they are – President Trump’s supporters, ex-President Zuma’s supporters – they all are loyal despite their interests not in any way being followed by these two men. And then finally I would say one has to look at the party. The ANC is deeply divided and I would say the Republican Party is also divided and Donald Trump sits at the centre of the division of the Republican Party and Jacob Zuma sits at the centre of the division in the African National Congress.”

Both men continue to wield significant political influence in their parties and the country, with implications for the principle of the rule of law.

“The point is there is a contest going on in SA about the reach of the law and the idea is the Constitutional Court in its judgment stated very clearly that Jacob Zuma is not above the law. But I think the consequences go outside of the law. The reason why these followers continue to support the ex-Presidents is because the conditions under which they live suggest that the major political parties do not take account of their conditions, so the gross economic inequality in SA and the lack of dignity within which many people have to live their lives means that there’s a ready constituency of people who are alienated and outside of the good of the new SA. Similarly in the United States, many of Donald Trump’s supporters are people who feel that the country no longer supports them – now much of it is in racist ideology, in the United States it’s about whites feeling that the country is becoming too brown for them, in SA it’s a class issue, it’s an economic issue.”

Andrews called for law enforcement to hold perpetrators and instigators accountable in order to reinforce the country’s constitutional project while urging Parliament to follow the US example and set up a multi-party probe into the genesis and executive failures linked to the riots in South Africa.