The biggest social unrest risks in South Africa right now

 ·12 May 2024

Chief Economist of the Efficient Group, Dawie Roodt, has shared his concerns regarding the possibility of violence before, during or after the elections, due to ominous rhetoric from some political leaders, compounded with other societal woes.

However, although threatening, South Africa is seen by some security researchers as being in a better place than it was during the last mass unrest in 2021.

This is because law enforcement are said to be more prepared and willing to pick up on and respond to threats and incidents of violence that could morph in social unrest.

Worries over political rhetoric

“This is a dangerous time for South Africa [and] I am really concerned about the possibility of riots,” said Roodt.

The dust is still settling after mass violence seen in 2021, which was triggered by some supporters of former president Jacob Zuma after his July 2021 arrest, but ultimately morphed into riots which experts say are rooted in South Africa’s systemic challenges such as deep inequality, poverty, social polarisation, unemployment, and crime.

It resulted in over 354 deaths and an estimated R50 billion damage to the economy – the worst to hit South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994.

A prevalent incident which sparked discussions around the threat of social unrest in 2024 was when some members of the new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party (where Zuma is its president) dabbled in threats of violence.

An MK party official recently appeared in court after saying that no one would be allowed to vote and there would be a “civil war”, “riots” and “anarchy” if Zuma, and in extension the MK party, did not appear on the ballot papers.

The member had said, “we are sending a loud and clear message to the ANC that if these courts, which are sometimes captured, if they stop MK, there will be anarchy in this country. There will be riots like you’ve never seen in this country. There will be no elections. No South Africans will go to the polls.”

Another widely publicised incident is where some members threatened violence if MK did not get a two-thirds majority. 

These MK members and others have since backtracked from these inciteful utterances, with party spokesperson, Nhlamulo Ndhlela threating disciplinary action if such remarks were to be repeated.

Regardless, unease remains among some.

“I read this morning about the infighting in the uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, and that [political volatility] is an example of things that could potentially go wrong,” said Roodt.

“We know that Mr. Zuma has a significant support base, especially in KwaZulu Natal, and if he says that he is being discriminated against…. it could be a catalyst for [social unrest],” he added.

But worries over violence sparked by political parties do not lie with one party alone.

For example, tensions recently escalated between supporters of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Inkatha Freedom Party, historically known rivals in KwaZulu-Natal.

As a result, President Cyril Ramaphosa said that he was concerned about “renewed” political violence in the province which is expected to be hotly contested this year.

“Given that the results of these polls are likely to be close, the post-election period is also of concern,” said Institute of Security Studies (ISS) researchers Gareth Newham, Godfrey Mulaudzi and Lizette Lancaster.

“Threats of violence cannot be ignored, as they can quickly escalate if proactive measures aren’t taken,” they added.

“I really hope that all our leaders, our political leaders, civil society leaders, [religious] leaders, everybody, just makes sure,” that they do not incite any violence during a sensitive time, said Roodt.

A repeat of 2021, although threatening, is seen as unlikely

“Despite all this, it’s unlikely that the country will experience the level of widespread violence seen in July 2021,” said the ISS researchers.

“Those riots were a wake-up call for law enforcement, businesses and communities. Police and private security have since improved communication and coordination, and seemingly better state and private intelligence-gathering systems should prevent large-scale violence.”

“Unlike in the July 2021 riots, the state seems to be taking threats of electoral violence more seriously,” added the researchers.

Roodt echoed this, saying “I have to admit that I think that the police are probably much better prepared now that how they were over two years ago.”

In March, the Presidency emphasised that law enforcement agencies were preparing for all scenarios to ensure free and fair elections.

“I just want to make it clear to anyone who is threatening any form of unrest that there will be follow-up, and they will be arrested,” said Ramaphosa.

It was recently announced that 17,000 police officers will be deployed to KwaZulu-Natal to monitor the elections.

Unrest factors seen to go deeper than politics

Researchers say that the roots of social unrest in South Africa go much deeper and are more complex than often assumed.

An article by researchers Justin Visage, Ivan Turok and Sharlene Swartz titled What lies behind social unrest in South Africa, and what might be done about it, says that “South Africa has among the highest recorded levels of social protest of any country in the world.”

“At the heart of the matter, South Africa’s deep-seated social inequalities and segregated living conditions provide fertile ground for popular discontent [and] there is no easy fix for these,” said Visage, Turok and Swartz.

This was recently echoed by Oxford Economics’ senior political analyst, Louw Nel.

Nel said that “the lack of inclusive growth is the most significant risk factor, with weak economic growth, high inequality, and unemployment straining the economic policy environment… high inequality and social polarisation elevate the risk of protests and unrest, with political violence risks above the African median.”

Read: South Africa 2024 election ‘shock’ unlikely

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