What started as isolated #FreeZuma protests in a handful of areas on 8 July 2021 by 12 July had spread and turned into food riots and widespread unrest across the provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal.
Former President Jacob Zuma handed himself over to police to serve his 15-month sentence just before midnight on 7 July 2021, when the Constitutional Court deadline for handing himself over was set to expire.
Hours after this, hundreds of protestors in several areas around KwaZulu Natal, including KwaDukuza and Tongaat, burned tyres, blocked the toll gates and access roads as they moved down the highway, many calling for the release of Zuma. Trucks and shops were also targeted and attacked. By 10 July, the protests had spread to include a few parts of Gauteng, and a few hostels were identified as ‘protest hotspots’.
On Sunday, 11 July, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in his announcement to extend the Level 4 Lockdown for another two weeks, addressed the protests, identifying “ethnic mobilisation” and condemning the events as “acts of criminality and violence” that would be prosecuted.
On 12 July, in many more townships across Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal, hundreds and thousands of people joined the protests, changing the dynamics and character of the protests, by blockading streets, but also by targeting malls, big supermarket chains, warehouse depots and taking food, groceries, medications, furniture and other goods.
In Eldorado Park (about 20kms south west of Johannesburg), as well as Freedom Park, townships in the south of Johannesburg, protestors burnt tyres, smashed passerby vehicles and also participated in the food riots by targeting the local shopping centres and shops. A message was also posted on Eldorado Park social medias alerting communities to avoid using the Golden Highway.
In another township south of Johannesburg, Kliptown, people targeted the Kliptown CBD, and closed shops were forcefully opened by different community members of Kliptown. It was like everyone was alive – young, old, everyone had their fare-share in taking whatever they could; things such as furniture, food, TVs, everything that was take-able was taken.
Though the community of Kliptown (near Eldorado Park), was very quiet in morning of 12 July and all shops had been closed, by 12pm the chaos of the food riots broke out. Gunshots and tear-gasses were fired by the police, but that did not stop the community. The local Post Office was also targeted in the riots, with everything taken.
Speaking to David (not his real name), a witness in Kliptown during the unrest said that the reason why some people participated in the food riots is “not just for fun but they actually needed the goods. People has lost their jobs during the pandemic and the R350 [social grant] given to the unemployed has also been taken away by the government. It is very difficult to make ends meet as we all know that food and everything is sky high in this country.”
“I don’t encourage [the food riots] at all but this has become the only way to get the attention from government. We’ve been speaking to local councillors and community leaders about the two biggest problems that we are facing, which is unemployment and poverty… It is clear that everyone that is part of government has failed us drastically,” David has said.
Many people on the streets at the time had their own opinion on the matter of why so many people joined and why the protests were taking place.
“This is actually an opportunity for me, because everyday I’m out in the streets hustling and its really tough out there. so I’m taking this opportunity to provide for my family,” said Desmond (not his real name), a 24 year old young man from Kliptown. Desmond said that he only took the things that he needed and left all the other things for others.
Oupa (not his real name), another young man from the area who said; “For years I have been sitting at home, applying for jobs but not one has called me back just for an interview, meanwhile the government is sitting comfortable at home not having to worry about what they going to eat for dinner”.
In the community of Lawley, a township 40kms south of Johannesburg, the food riots and protests targeted foreign nationals’ shops after the food riots at the shopping centre in Ennerdale took place.
According to Ntsoaki Raboroko, a community member of Lawley; “Most people within townships are unemployed as well as frustrated by not being able to provide for their family as majority are being retrenched especially under [Lockdown] Level 4. A lot of families were also depending on schools as a source of their food provisions and now that schools are closed, children at home are getting hungry. This Zuma protest was an emergency answer button for them”.
In Finetown, a township about 35kms south of Johannesburg, the community also experienced the food riots and a Usave supermarket was targeted, but some residents, together with the Community Policing Forum of Lenasia, took it upon themselves to protect the other businesses and business owners that they could. One report said that the protestors were not people from the area but that rather a van was spotted transporting people who then ‘recruited’ some members of the community to engage in the riots.
One Community Healthcare Workers (CHW) who resides in Finetown said her house was damaged during the unrest. Since then she and her kids are terrified as her roof was opened because she lives next door to a shop and they were trying to break into it. They managed to break into the shop and they took everything including the beds and fridges.
In Daveyton, about 40kms east of Johannesburg on the Eastrand, the food riots began on Sunday 11 July and caused havoc. The protests and food riots went on until 13 July, with a lot of people being arrested and others badly injured from the chaos that was happening between the cops and the protestors.
One of the participants from Daveyton said that he was just following orders from some of the Zulu-speaking men who live at the nearby hostels. According to this young man, they were the ones who gave the orders to vandalise and take from the shops. He said that he didn’t ask why because they had weapons with them and he feared they would kill him.
Another participant in the food riots by the name of Zandile said that she came to take goods because she just got fired from work without pay, so took some goods to provide for her children as she’s the only breadwinner in the family. She also said that she brought her older children to come and help her out when they went to take groceries from the shops because they were faster than her.
According to Sphamandla Xaba, a university student based in Tsakane (a township about 50kms from Johannesburg, on the Eastrand) stated that the reason why people are rioting is because “People are hungry, angry, depressed, and also tired of COVID-19 and this lockdown thing. They’ve been like this since last year, It’s just that they lacked the opportunity to express themselves, and now they’re using the issue of Zuma.”
On the evening of 12 July 2021, the President addressed the country for a second time in two days. This time Ramaphosa announced the deployment of the South African National Defence Force to quell the protests, a move that was welcomed by some sections in society and rejected by others.
In the community of Wattville (a township about 35kms east of Johannesburg), community members joined in the food riots and protests, flooding the streets and targeting local shops in Wattville and the neignbouring Actonville. Thousands of community members forcibly opened supermarkets and shops and took what they could. The police were nowhere to found while the riots took place.
“I don’t even know why Zuma is arrested, all I wanted to do today was to get in the shops and get some food for my family, because times are tough and a hungry stomach knows no law in all honesty,” said a 33-year-old male resident of Wattville.
There were also strong xenophobic elements – foreign nationals who own some of the spaza shops in Wattville were also in the firing-line of the protests as they are often the first target during food riots and protests. An Ethiopian shop owner said; “I’ve had a shop in the community for over six years now and I’ve been looted more than ten times in these protests”.
The police was very scarce in the communities in the Wattville area, in some instances only one police van was deployed to control a crowd of hundreds of people at a time.
According to a member of SAPS who works in the Benoni area and did not want to be named, “As the police, in times like these our job gets difficult. We get many calls about different incidents that are happening and we are usually under-staffed and often instructed to prioritise suburban areas over the township”.
In Eden Park (a township about 26kms south east of Johannesburg, on the Eastrand), the foreign national shop owners were vigilant as they had heard about the protests happening in other parts. They noticed large groups of people standing around the corners and quickly organised transport for their goods to be taken to safe places. They then locked their shops.
Most people in Finetown did not go to work on 12 July as they had heard the possibility of protest in Ekurhuleni were scared. A poster had been circulating that there would be a march for service delivery in the whole of Ekurhuleni, but later the community was informed that it had been postponed. As the day progressed CHWs in the field noticed that the food riots were on many people’s mind, with some wanting to join.
Though there were no protests or riots that took place in Eden Park, CHWs in Palm Ridge (a township about 5kms away), shared that they were told that the local clinic and court were closed due to the protests and the food riots targeted big shops like Meat Choice.
“They told us they’ve been hearing gun shots from their homes. We were then told by our Outreach Team Leader to go straight home for safety as Palm Ridge is just next to us”, says one CHW from Eden Park.
Over the next two days (by 14 July), most of the areas which had been aflame the day before were empty and very quiet. Small shop owners, businesses, offices, public institutions, facilities and departments were still afraid to open.
In many of the townships affected by the riots, community members came out to assist small business owners to clean up and prevent further property damage. With a lack of police presence in many areas, other organisations like the South African National Taxi Council (SANTACO), Community Policing Forums and other ‘civilian defence groups’ were reported to police in some communities.
Since the unrest began over a week ago, over 200 malls and shopping complexes were targeted, more than 2000 people have been arrested, and over 200 killed.
After the scarce presence of police on the ground in the first few days, with the help of the army SAPS started searching cars, and going house to house in some locations, checking for goods and arresting those who could not produce receipts.
The government has now categorised the unrest as an “insurrection” and has been releasing information on a daily basis about the investigations in the “12 instigators” who started the “counter-revolution”.
This article is an amalgum of various submissions by FAJs around Gauteng. The various articles were submitted between 12 and 15 July 2021. You may republish this article, so long as you credit the authors and Karibu! Online (www.Karibu.org.za), and do not change the text. Please include a link back to the original article.