Unrest and violence warning as South African police prepare for action

 ·26 May 2024

Numerous organisations, including the South African Police, BMI, and Oxford Economics, have warned of a higher risk of violence and unrest amidst the 2024 general elections.

The 2024 general elections take place on 29 May. It is the first time since the democracy that the ruling ANC is at risk of getting under 50% of the vote.

The new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) Party, closely linked to former president Jacob Zuma, is a dark horse in the race.

Uncertainty linked to the elections’ outcome and the government port-election heightens the risk of violence and unrest in South Africa.

On Monday, FirstRand warned of an increased risk of social unrest, looting, and clashes in May and June linked to the 2024 elections.

The group issued an internal medium-risk security notice, warning that it anticipates some uMkhonto we Sizwe Party (MKP) protest action during May/June.

This risk is related to possible dissatisfaction over former President Jacob Zuma’s ineligibility to stand for Parliament in the 2024 elections because of a recent contempt of court conviction.

FirstRand circulated the memo to various operating entities, such as First National Bank, WesBank and Rand Merchant Bank.

On Friday, security group Fidelity warned of possible protests in KwaZulu-Natal because of the Constitutional Court’s decision to exclude Jacob Zuma from standing for office.

Oxford Economics’ senior political analyst, Louw Nel, explained that South Africa’s high inequality and social polarisation elevate the country’s risk of protests and unrest.

The fact that the country’s 18.4 million welfare grant recipients far outstrip the 7 million income taxpayers represents a risk to the country’s fiscus and social cohesion.

The effect of spark, which can have a snowball effect, was seen in the violent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in 2021.

This unrest was a stark reminder that a rapid deterioration in the country’s security environment remains an ever-present risk.

Oxford Economics added that if the Multi-Party Charter (MPC) is elected, the risk of protests, trade union strikes, and unrest in South Africa will be severely elevated.

Oxford Economics’ concerns are echoed by the South African Police Service’s crime intelligence unit, which warned of numerous direct and indirect risks.

The SA Police is concerned about unrest, violence, and boycotts in some parts of the country linked to the elections.

One of the concerns is truckers blocking key routes, like the N3 highway. The truckers want foreign drivers banned from working in South Africa.

The police is also preparing for unrest linked to protests about poor service delivery in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and North West.

There are further concerns that police station armouries in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape could be targeted by protestors who want to steal guns.

Greatest risk for political violence since 1994

BMI’s associate director of operational risk, Derrick Botha, said South Africa’s upcoming elections pose the greatest risk for political violence since 1994.

The biggest risk comes from the newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, closely linked to former President Jacob Zuma.

The Constitutional Court recently ruled that Zuma is not eligible to stand for this month’s elections.

His disqualification for standing in the elections is linked to his 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court in 2021.

Despite this ruling, Zuma remains the party’s face. As the registered leader, he will appear on ballots.

Botha warned that if the MK Party does not accept May’s election outcome, it could lead to mass unrest across South Africa, similar to the July riots in 2021.

The July 2021 unrest was linked to Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt.  It was concentrated in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

What began as protests in support of Zuma quickly spiralled into wider riots and looting, as underlying economic grievances played a part.

Botha said these riots showed the willingness of many Zuma supporters to resort to violence.

Therefore, this willingness could again be showcased if the former President’s party does not accept the election results this year.

Experts warn of unstable social environment in South Africa

Efficient Group chief economist Dawie Roodt

Efficient Group chief economist Dawie Roodt said South Africa has a volatile mix of unemployment, rising poverty, a polarised society, and election uncertainty.

Some political leaders fan the flames with divisive rhetoric and unrealistic promises to garner votes.

Roodt said these factors put pressure on society, which makes him very concerned about the possibility of violence.

Like Botha, he is concerned that a spark could have a cascading effect, leading to a repeat of the violence and looting experienced in July 2021.

“The unrest can pick up momentum because of the underlying factors, like unemployment and poverty. These forces can drive violence in South Africa,” he said.

Former deputy chief of the South African Army, General Roland de Vries, echoed Roodt’s concerns that a trigger event around the elections could cause unrest and violence.

He said there is a dangerous environment with high youth unemployment, households struggling financially, and increased absolute poverty.

He is particularly concerned about the millions of people relying on social grants and state support to put food on the table.

“Should state finances collapse and it fails to pay social grants, there will be havoc in South Africa,” he said.

The government is not well equipped to deal with these situations, which could lead to anarchy similar to the July 2021 unrest.

He shared the SA Police’s concerns that criminal elements could close major roads, like the N3, preventing food from being distributed throughout the country.

“I am concerned about the state’s capability of pre-empting, preventing, or containing such threats,” De Vries said.

“I doubt the state can contain such threats and stabilise the environment quickly to prevent it from spreading.”

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