Lessons from the South African Unrest and Implications for Development

By Dr Eddie Mahembe

This week – precisely on 13 July 2021 – I had the opportunity to be on SABC News – being interviewed by Peter Ndoro – to share my thoughts on the socio-economic issues around the so-called ‘South Africa Unrest’.

This was in the middle of the riots which had started on the evening of 9 July in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and spread to Gauteng on the evening of 11 July. A lot has happened since my SABC interview – including the sad death of around 212 and the arrest of 2 554 people.

The level of violence, looting and burning of shops and key infrastructure is unprecedented in recent history – and both South Africans and the international community are still trying to come to terms with this sad development – especially in the middle of the 3rd wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A number of commentators, politicians, business people and the government have come up with several explanations on the possible causes, implications and impact of these unrests.

In this article, I would want to not only re-state my original thoughts on the possible causes of the South Africa Unrest, but I intend to argue that the main causes are not unique to South Africa and therefore South Africa and other African countries can benefit from these lessons and the suggested solutions in this article.



Causes of the South African Unrest

Given that the violent protests started in KZN soon after the arrest of former South African president Jacob Zuma, many commentators have argued that the main causes of the unrest are political and legal issues.

As the protests unfolded, and the violence was captured on mainstream and social media, many began to infer that criminality could also be a factor. As visuals continue to come, with the looting in some parts of Gauteng, the world begun to see the faces of the protestors and looters.

These included mainly the youths, and in some instances mothers and children were seen carrying foodstuffs. It became clear that the causes of the unrest were broader than politics, legality and/or criminality.

Some analysts have characterised the arrest of Jacob Zuma as just a trigger; normally referred to by historians as the Sarajevo moment.



I want to argue that there are indeed multiple factors that caused the South Africa Unrest. The political and legal could just have been the triggers and many criminals might have taken advantage of the opportunity to loot.

A simple observation of the geographical areas where the unrest took place, and the profile of the rioters reveals that the riots where concentrated in the townships and the major drivers on the ground where the youths.

This brings to the fore socio-economic issues of poverty, hunger, inequality, racial tensions, unemployment and general lack of opportunities.

The World Bank estimate that around 20% of South Africans live on less than US$1.90 a day and the income inequality is one of the highest in the world.

Latest statistics from Statistics South Africa show that official unemployment rate was 32,6% in the first quarter of 2021 and the expanded unemployment rate (which includes discouraged people) stood at 43,2%.

Of particular concern is the 10,2 million (32,4%) youths (aged 15–24 years) not in employment, education or training (NEET). These are the youths who just seat by the street corners, not working nor improving their skills.

The majority of these youths are frustrated and can easily be taken advantage of by those planning the unrests.



Lessons and Recommendations

It is important to correctly diagnose the root cause of a problem if appropriate solutions have to be found. Wrong diagnosis may lead to inaction or inappropriate action.

One of the lessons for South Africa and other African countries coming out of colonial history is that the business of the liberation struggle is still very much unfinished.

The liberation struggle was fought because the Black people in general, and the youths in particular, found themselves marginalised and without opportunities.

In South Africa, these underlying issues of poverty, inequality and unemployment have manifested themselves in the current violent protests.

In other countries, the outcome has been seen in migration where the working class has migrated to other countries as economic refugees.

Paradoxically, South Africa hosts a huge number of economic refugees from many African and Asian countries. We have also seen many youths dying in the Mediterranean sea trying to cross into Europe for economic opportunities.

In my next instalment, I will offer my suggested policy recommendations. For today, I would want to end by emphasising that inclusive development is the answer. Africa needs pro-poor development policies.



Dr Eddie Mahembe is a Development Economist. He holds a PhD in (Development) Economics, MCom in Economics, BCom Honours in Econometrics and BSc. Honours in Economics. He can be reached on Email (eddiemahembe@outlook.com) or WhatsApp (+27 60 532 8754).


















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