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The big story: How did we get here?

When former president Jacob Zuma arrived at the Estcourt Correctional Centre last Thursday, few people believed the story was over. Fewer still (apparently including our intelligence services; more on that shortly) imagined what was to come.

Zuma’s supporters were aggrieved at his incarceration. Protests escalated fast in KwaZulu-Natal. Roads were blocked, trucks were set alight, and malls and shops were stripped bare and torched. The conflagration spread to Gauteng: shops were looted, buildings were burning, and social media timelines were stacked with images of people scuttling past shattered windows, their arms or vehicles filled with food, groceries, clothes and appliances. By this afternoon, 72 people had died.

It looked like chaos and opportunism but there were also organised, slick operators on the prowl. Electrical and water infrastructure came under attack.

News24 reported yesterday that authorities had identified Thulani Dhlomo, former head of the State Security Agency’s rogue special operations unit and a very close Zuma ally, as the “prime suspect” in orchestrating the KZN unrest. The Daily Maverick described Dhlomo as one of 12 alleged ringleaders whose “political campaign … has spiralled out of the control of its firestarters”. 

So, what are we dealing with? Deliberate insurrection or unplanned uprising? Well, both. The protests may have started because of Zuma’s incarceration, but the chaos spread because of desperation, hunger and opportunism. Exclusionary systems, a complex history that’s never been fully reckoned with, years of broken promises, high rates of joblessness and pervasive hunger are all at play here.

That means merely quelling the symptoms (looting and destruction) won’t do a damn thing to cure our ills. Strong, decisive leadership will be crucial. It is more important than ever to get out and vote in October – if the planned elections go ahead – so politicians across the board can be held to account. A massive push across society for genuine systemic change is long overdue but cannot be deferred any longer. We can put out the flames 🧯, but a fire has been lit – and it will keep burning whether or not Zuma is behind bars.

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 15 July 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.