Destabilization of South Africa Escalates*
By Alexander Mezyaev
Domestic affairs in South Africa have sharply deteriorated since April of this year. A wave of violence has erupted against foreigners all across the country.
The first incidents occurred during the Soweto riots in mid-January. This marked the beginning of the social upheaval in South Africa – a country with a wealth of natural resources and a population of over 50 million. The violence then made its way to major cities – Durban, Johannesburg, and others. Army divisions were eventually brought into some areas of Johannesburg. Several potential explanations have been suggested for what is happening in South Africa.
Version no. 1. This nightmare stems from the fact that illegal migrants are taking jobs – currently in short supply – away from the local residents. There is much to support this theory. First, the unemployment rate is indisputably high (25% overall, and up to 40% for black South Africans, who make up nearly 4/5 of the country’s population). Second, the country is home to large numbers of immigrants (1.5 to 2 million). And third, the level of crime there is extraordinary (the 4th highest in the world), so any unrest is easy to attribute to criminal activity. Also, the original disturbances were sparked when a factory fired striking workers and brought in immigrants to take their place. But this version cannot account for everything. For example, only migrants with a family background in African countries were attacked, although they were hardly responsible for the country’s economic woes. Chinese workers, for instance, were not assaulted, although they take tens of thousands of jobs from South Africans. What’s more, some migrants are being attacked who are actually creating jobs for native South Africans (for example, by opening their own shops). But no looting has been seen in stores owned by Pakistanis or other South Asians. Thus, other explanations need to be considered.
Version no. 2. The attacks on foreigners are a way to destabilize the country. There are also good arguments in favour of this version.
First, the attacks seem to follow a consistent pattern, with a similar scenario unfolding even in different cities.
Second, many media outlets have taken an active role in inciting hatred toward foreigners. Some newspapers have published inflammatory headlines and photos. The massive campaign to «Photoshop» these events is fuelling both hatred and fear. Photos taken several years ago, in Côte d’Ivoire and other countries, showing victims being killed and burned alive are being published as though those events were taking place in South Africa today. One other detail is worth noting. From the very beginning almost every media outlet has categorically labelled the unrest as a manifestation of «xenophobia». No other view is being circulated. It is very rare to see such unanimity throughout the media.
Third, note should be made of the role of a few leading politicians, who never make off-the-cuff remarks. Before the attacks began, the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, stated that «foreigners should pack their belongings and leave the country». The king’s words added fuel to the fire that was already burning. It is no coincidence that the attacks have been most widespread in the province of KwaZulu-Natal – the Zulu Kingdom.
Fourth and finally, technology has played a key role in orchestrating the hysteria. Many millions of text messages were sent out across the country, encouraging the attacks and causing large numbers of people to flee. The messages included fake warnings, alleging that armed groups were on their way to certain areas. Clearly it was not the dispirited and unemployed masses who were responsible for that. So this version, suggesting that hostility toward foreigners is being used to destabilize the country, seems more plausible, based on the facts.
Hence the question: who benefits? What internal or external forces might be interested in destabilizing South Africa?
Clearly mass unrest is not to the government’s advantage. It might be helpful for the opposition, but unrest is a two-edged sword that could result in the introduction of a state of emergency or martial law, under which the opposition could be suppressed without legal repercussions. It is unlikely that the opposition would want to see the entire country profoundly destabilized. However, it might be of interest to one force in South Africa that opposes the government – the racist criminal communities that exist outside any constitutional frameworks and that have their own military camps and are preparing for war. They might indeed have an interest in unleashing a civil war in South Africa. There is no direct evidence implicating them in these events, but there is one reason they cannot be ignored in the search for a culprit. And that is the breakdown in relations between South Africa and its African neighbours. The governments of many African countries whose citizens have been attacked have begun evacuating their nationals from South Africa. That was followed by angry statements from many capitals on that continent. Nigeria was particularly indignant, recalling its ambassador and placing personal blame at the feet of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma. Please note: the amorphous atmosphere of «xenophobia» was not blamed for the attacks; rather it was the head of state who was held personally accountable. As a result, South Africa now finds itself isolated on the continent.
Of all the theories about the causes of the social unrest in South Africa, the most likely version points to some outside influence on the country. One result of the tumultuous events in South Africa has been that the country has been stripped of its moral leadership on various initiatives in Africa, which have been the prime focus of its foreign policy. The attacks on foreigners with roots in almost every country in Africa have largely undermined South Africa’s economic relations with the other countries on that continent. It resembles a large-scale special ops raid carried out by external forces who are watching – with unease and even hatred – the successes of pan-African integration, as well as the economic growth of the continent’s leading countries. South Africa has been the driving force behind those trends, formulating the philosophical foundations of the African Renaissance (the NEPAD program) and proposing specific programs to help Africans resolve their own conflicts in Africa, without having to resort to «international mediators». For example, South Africa was one of the primary sponsors behind the creation of the African Standby Force. There is a good reason why the postponement of the final formation of those forces, previously scheduled for December 2015, was announced during the apex of the riots in South Africa.
The modern world has seen many examples of a direct tie between internal unrest and external forces. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made explicit reference to this recently when he noted that the attacks by armed groups in Macedonia «was occurring in conjunction with the country’s objections to the sanctions against Moscow and its support of the plans to build Turkish Stream».
We must also note the statement by South African President Jacob Zuma, which he made after his arrival in Moscow to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazism. Zuma stressed that the world leaders «with whom he had met» unanimously assured him that the problem of xenophobia and resulting mass unrest was «not just a South African problem, but a universal one». Of course, Jacob Zuma knew this perfectly well beforehand, but the fact that he waited until his meetings in Moscow to mention it demonstrates how much support the South African president and government have from the heads of state who were gathered in the Russian capital.
Of course the unrest and strikes in South Africa come as no surprise to anyone. However, one cannot forget the related tragedy in Marikana that occurred on Aug. 16, 2012. On that day the police opened fire on striking mine workers, killing 34 and wounding 78. What’s most odd is that there was no reason whatsoever for those shootings. There was no threat that would necessitate the use of deadly force. The events in Marikana have still never been explained. And they likely never will, due to the significance of the location of the workers’ strike – the platinum mines. That is a strategic site, not only for South Africa, but for the entire global economy: South Africa owns the overwhelming majority of the world’s platinum reserves. Of the 66,000 tons of platinum available on earth, 63,000 tons are South Africa (Russia holds the second largest reserves of this metal – totalling only 1,000 tons). A special Commission of Inquiry, established by the South African parliament, completed its work and submitted its report to the president a few weeks ago. The report is secret, but regardless of whether it is ever published, there are foreign fingerprints on the tragedy in Marikana.
Recently, the well-known political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki compared South Africa to a bomb «waiting to explode». There have been repeated attempts to detonate this explosive. The current blow being inflicted on South Africa is the third serious such attempt to undermine the country since the democratic South African Republic was established. First there was unrest in 2008 that was blamed on «xenophobia»; then the events in Marikana occurred.
But that bomb doesn’t have to go off. South Africa needs peace between ethnic groups and stability. The latest blow that has sent South Africa reeling is the most powerful yet. The current unrest is not yet over – individual incidents of violence continue. It is important that the government understands the causes of what is happening, and there is hope that it will be able to regain control of the situation.