A President arrested, and riots.
No, not the USA, but South Africa, which has been convulsed by unrest and looting ever since former President Jacob Zuma, a Zulu, was arrested on corruption charges on 7 July.
Zuma has long been the subject of speculation around various of his business dealings and unorthodox public pronouncements, but he has also retained a strong core of support amongst ethnic Zulus and other allies in the ruling African National Congress.
These allies argue, with at least some justification, that the charges against Zuma are politically motivated, and the way the former President was apparently tricked into custody with the connivance of his own state-appointed bodyguard has only fueled the rage.
So, the rioting in KwaZulu-Natal and in Johannesburg, the destruction of commercial property and the apparent inability of public services to keep order has left major question marks hanging over the rainbow nation.
Is this an uprising about Zuma alone, or is it more? Is this in fact an uprising against what’s effectively been a one-party state for a couple of generations?
The last time a party other than the ANC was in power was before the end of the apartheid regime, that’s to say in 1994, nearly 30 years ago. This grip on the levers of government doesn’t quite rival that of Zimbabwe’s Zanu PF, in power for over 40 years, but there are some parallels.
Municipal elections are coming in South Africa, and there plenty who are linking the current spate of violence to their possible outcome.
Supporters of the ANC will argue that during the years between Nelson Mandela’s election and now elections have been broadly free and broadly fair, and that they bear no parallel to the democratic travesties held in President Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
To date, the point has been unarguable. But some are arguing that that’s now changing.
And whether this issue about Zuma proves to be a turning point or not, it’s nevertheless true that supporters of any party other than the ANC have very few places to turn.
Corruption, though corporate entities fear to mention it, is an issue. And it’s not because it’s endemic in and of itself. It’s because the governing party has become embedded in the state. One of the principle benefits of a party system is that ministers change when their party loses power, and so no single person and no one culture gets embedded into the fabric of state.
As a famous, now eminently cancellable politician once said, democracy is “the least worst solution.”
But if the same party stays in power without interruption, practices can become sloppy, lines of accountability become blurred, and the state can come to be seen as a cash cow for a privileged elite. In this respect, the ANC isn’t too dissimilar from the Washington elites derided by President Trump in his clarion call to electors to “drain the swamp.”
It’s hard to argue that South Africa needs its own version of Trump. Indeed, it’s hard to argue that any of the one or two beneficial things that Trump did outweigh in any way the negative effects of the chaos that he left behind him. And given that the US has its own forms of election violence, it’s not as if this is even a uniquely South African or African issue.
But South Africa does need something, or someone.
It was instructive to see old footage of President Ramaphosa resurfacing this week, in which he responded to criticism that he was weak by arguing that his “mission” is to keep the ANC united.
Meme-makers were quick to point out that in making this statement he was putting party before country. It may have been unfair, it may have been taken out of context, but there’s no question that South Africa’s fissures and divisions have become much more apparent in this latest eruption of political and mob violence, and looting.