By Charlie Kimber
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‘There are no jobs, we are hungry’—riots sweep across South Africa

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Issue 2763
President Cyril Ramaphosa has no answers for ordinary people
President Cyril Ramaphosa has no answers for ordinary people

An explosion of rage is sweeping across large parts of South Africa.

Thousands of the poorest people in the country have rioted and looted shopping centres, supermarkets and warehouses.

The revolt began last weekend in KwaZulu-Natal province, centred on the city of Durban. Then it spread to Johannesburg and the surrounding Gauteng province.

Next there was major looting in two other provinces—Mpumalanga, just east of Gauteng, and Northern Cape.

Initially, it all seemed to be linked to small protests initiated by the supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who had just been jailed.

But it quickly became about much more—and most of those involved have no interest in Zuma or any of the politicians at the top of society.

Duduzile lives in the northern Johannesburg township of Alexandra where about 750,000 people live. She told Socialist Worker, “I am 40 years old and I have never seen anything like this. People were emptying the shops. It was a free for all.

“For many it was a delight. At last there was food and other things. There are no jobs, we are hungry, our children and elders are hungry.

“Coronavirus has meant deaths, a lot of dead, and we are poorer than ever during the lockdowns.

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“The looting started with young people, but then there were many older people.

“Most of the time people are taking simple things—rice, cooking oil, vegetables. But then there is also the chance for things that you dream of, a proper bed or a fan or a fridge or something nice to wear.

“Now the police are very heavy, shooting people and firing tear gas. I think there will be a lot of punishment and I am frightened about jobs in the future and whether all the businesses will now go.”  

In several provinces the government has sent in thousands of soldiers to back up the police.

Already at least 72 people have died during riots, looting and state repression.

Various “community groups” are setting up their own defence groups. Some are made up mostly of armed white people worried about their properties. Others are organised by black-owned business people such as taxi firms.

At the root of what’s happened is desperate poverty. The official unemployment rate was 32.6 percent in the first quarter of 2021. For people aged 15 to 34, the rate is almost 50 percent.

Another official analysis, which includes workers who have given up all hope of a job, says the overall rate of unemployment is over 43 percent.


That means there are many millions of people who live in substandard housing with no certainty about where there next meal is coming from. Even those with a job are often on poverty pay.

At the end of April the government withdrew the Covid-19 relief grant, even though lockdowns have continued in some sectors. Although it was only £17.50 a month, it was a lifeline to many people.

And increases in other benefits also stopped.

A statement from Abahlali baseMjondolo, the South African shack dwellers’ movement, said, “We have warned again and again that we are sitting on a ticking time bomb.

“We have warned for too long that people cannot continue to live in terrible poverty only to be ignored year after year. We have made it clear that people will not allow their humanity to be vandalised forever.

“The elites have always ignored the poor. They do not see us. When the riots happened suddenly the poor were before their eyes.”

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President Cyril Ramaphosa said the looting was “opportunistic criminality”. But he was also forced to admit, “This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew. The level of unemployment, poverty, and inequality in our society is unsustainable.”

It is unsustainable. But Ramaphosa and his African National Congress predecessors in office have presided over decades of that poverty while boosting big business.

The looting is a symptom of the lack of fundamental change since the end of apartheid in 1994.

Looting is not the same as an organised working class movement or a socialist insurrection. Targets of riots and looting have included vaccination centres and health facilities.

There are ugly features. Some of those involved are pushing xenophobia against black workers who have come from other African countries.

In some areas there have been ethnic or tribalist confrontations where one section of poor people targeted another.

Abahlali baseMjondolo and other groups are fighting against such divisions. But the prime responsibility for such acts lies with those who create the poverty and desperation that fuel them.

It is right to revolt. A working class solution means organising for a revolution against the rich and the politicians who support them.

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