Historic Context of the Current Riots and Violence. Photo: Prof Petrus (provided) and military tank in front of shopping centre on July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward
Historic Context of the Current Riots and Violence. Photo: Prof Petrus (provided) and military tank in front of shopping centre on July 16, 2021. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

With the recent chaos specifically in the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, and the media focus on these areas pertaining to the violent riots and looting, it is easy to get wrapped up in some tunnel vision, focusing exclusively on these events… writes Free State University’s Prof Petrus. The danger of this, of course, is that one runs the risk of trying to make sense of these events in isolation. However, a more holistic view reveals that nothing can be further from the truth.

Prof Theodore Petrus
Prof Theodore Petrus, author of this opinion piece

A wider context is at play, and the recent events are the latest manifestation of this wider context. The events happening now have a historical context, particularly if we relate them to the prevailing political, economic, and social conditions. I would highlight in particular the following key factors:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic
  • The political tumult emanating from the Zondo Commission, corruption allegations against high-profile political leaders, and the arrest and sentencing of Jacob Zuma
  • Lack of service delivery, skyrocketing unemployment and poverty
  • A dysfunctional senior police leadership

If we want to make sense of what is currently happening, we have to look at the above factors as part of the wider context. The rioting and violence that flare up from time to time, including now, are not isolated incidents that occur in a vacuum. They are almost always linked to a wider context, and in recent times, the four contextual factors mentioned above have been at the root of most of the violent protests and riots that the country has witnessed.

The Covid-19 pandemic

The pandemic and all of the red flags surrounding the government’s handling of it perhaps still form the primary factor underlying the current discontent. People have lost businesses, jobs, and their livelihoods due to lockdown measures. Yet here we find ourselves in adjusted Level 4 lockdown, with businesses and livelihoods being further crippled. This adds to the desperation and tension, which means that even the slightest provocation could potentially set off a chain reaction of events such as what we are experiencing now. Just two weeks ago, London in the UK experienced violent anti-lockdown protests. A month ago, violent protests occurred in Germany against government measures to curb the pandemic. The point of these examples is to show that violent protests and riots are not unique to South Africa in the time of the pandemic, since, as in other countries, riots are an expression of dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic. Of course, the reports of corruption and stealing related to the pandemic do little to assuage growing public anger and frustration.

The two significant political events

Two significant political events that have occurred recently, namely the allegations against Ace Magashule and the arrest of Jacob Zuma, are the culmination of what has emerged from the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into State Capture. Citizens who listen to or watch the testimonies unfolding daily about the years of corruption and looting of state resources can hardly be blamed for feeling aggrieved. Within this context, we also have what appears to be a ‘divide and conquer’ strategy being employed, specifically the creation of division and even conflict between those favouring the arrest and punishment of those alleged to be involved in corruption on the one hand, and those who support them on the other. While social media warriors on both sides are going at it, the real culprits simply continue with what they have always been doing: keeping the masses under their control by getting them to fight among themselves.

Related to the above is the ongoing frustration experienced by ordinary citizens due to the lack of service delivery, ongoing electricity problems, unemployment, and poverty. Just prior to the current riots, there were various examples of violent service delivery protests in different parts of the country. We all know that service delivery protests are not new, and that they have been going on for years. Yet here we are. People are still using violence to communicate their dissatisfaction with the lack of service delivery. Again, these issues affect the quality of life of citizens, and many are feeling that they have little option but to vent their frustrations through violence.

The police

unrest south africa
Image Credit: Twitter@JoburgMPD

And then we come to the situation in the police. Right now, the police are being criticised – from the highest level of the Ministry of Police – for their inadequate response to the violent riots and looting. They have been accused of being reactive when they should have been proactive and should have anticipated the current situation. However, the fact is that the SAPS’ problems have not started now. The organisation has been fielding criticism from all sides due to allegations of police corruption, excessive force used by police officers, and a dysfunctional senior leadership structure. The Minster of Police’s press briefing about the SAPS’ response to the riots was met with little enthusiasm. This latest crisis is yet another blow to public confidence in the SAPS. From the moment they became aware of the mobilisation of pro-Zuma supporters in Nkandla, it is hard to fathom that the SAPS could not foresee, or at the very least, have planned for the possibility of violent reaction to the arrest of Zuma. However, the situation has been left to escalate and we are now witnessing the result. While Minister Cele defended this course of (in)action, saying that they did not want to risk another Marikana, the question is whether they have learnt anything since Marikana about how to handle public violence in a proactive manner. It seems that they have not. But is there another possibility? Did they act on instruction? Has this situation been allowed to get out of control deliberately in order to justify a particular response, such as the deployment of the army?


These questions raise more questions about the possibility of what seems to be an example of a Hegelian dialectic in operation. What is the Hegelian dialectic? In simple terms, it can be summed up as problem-reaction-solution. A problem is deliberately created in order to get a particular reaction/response, which in turn opens the door for a specific solution. What is the problem that has been created? An unstable society that is like a powder keg, caused by a combination of the four factors I outlined above. What is the reaction? The public criticism of the government and even violent protests and riots against the government. It is also possible that part of the reaction is to normalise violent protests and criminality, which is why it seems that those in authority demonstrate tolerance of these through their actions. What is the solution? This remains to be seen. At present we are still experiencing the problem and reaction stages of the dialectic. Perhaps the solution will come in the form of a normalisation of a paramilitary type of law enforcement structure that will enforce population control through lockdowns and curfews, such as we are now systematically being conditioned to accept as the new reality. From this uncomfortable perspective, the solution may well be worse than the problem.

Theodore Petrus is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of the Free State and is also an academic and business coach. He specialises in research on gang culture and gang violence, witchcraft-related crime and the occult, African demonology and spirit possession, and Coloured identity dynamics.