South Africa braces for Kenya-like opposition protests

South Africa's Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema. PHOTO | AFP

What you need to know:

  • On Sunday, South African police, backed by the army, were “strategically placed” in key locations ahead of today’s planned demos, which has received some limited support from trade union militants, amid threats of business lootings and intimidation of owners who do not shut up shop, as the EFF had demanded.

South was on Monday bracing for a power showdown between authorities determined to stop feared widespread looting and destruction, and protesters adhering to the call by militant opposition party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), to force a ‘national shutdown’.

Similar protests over unfulfilled political and economic grievances are planned in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal and Tunisia, marking a growing rebellion against sitting presidents.

On Sunday, South African police, backed by the army, were “strategically placed” in key locations ahead of today’s planned demos, which has received some limited support from trade union militants, amid threats of business lootings and intimidation of owners who do not shut up shop, as the EFF had demanded.

President Cyril Ramaphosa deployed over 3,400 SA National Defence Force troops for "crime prevention and preservation of law and order" to support police. The deployment is set to run until April 17.

Mass destruction

In a bid to prevent a repeat of the mass destruction and violence of July 2021, which followed former president Zuma’s jailing, police backed by the army have vowed to prevent looting, as has been threatened against any business not adhering to the shutdown.

The 'unrest' of July 2021 is being cited specifically as to the reason for troops being deployed at key locations countrywide ahead of the EFF's planned protest.

Police say they have been removing stashes of old tyres at major road junctions in various urban centres in KwaZulu-Natal, which was hardest-hit by roadblocks and looting mobs in the 2021 riots.

EFF leader Julius Malema said ahead of the protest, which is designed to “bring to a halt all activities” to enforce its demand that S. African President Cyril Ramaphosa resign and that damaging power outages be halted, that the planned country-wide actions would be “peaceful”, but that also the EFF “will not tolerate any interference in our right to legally protest”.

With heavy police and security presence in place in Cape Town, where the EFF will lead the national protest action with a march on Parliament, now housed in the Cape Town City Hall, and with social media awash with threats that businesses that remain open will be “burned and looted”, the High Court in Cape Town Friday granted an interdict allowing the EFF protest march to go ahead, but with restrictions.

Violence of any kind, intimidation of citizens or business owners and involvement in any road or street blockades have all been explicitly banned, largely in reaction to some of the extreme social media posts circulating and comments from protest planners that they intended to “bring the country to a halt” in support of their demands.

Planned since January, the EFF protest is meant to be a show of force and to put the Ramaphosa administration on the back foot, a year ahead of elections which look set to see the ruling African National Congress (ANC) lose its grip on power for the first time since the end of apartheid 29 years ago.

Power outages

Up until this weekend, the EFF’s unhappiness over ongoing and damaging outages, affecting every citizen daily, was being widely echoed as S. Africans’ patience with non-supply of electricity has been rapidly running to an end.

But ironically, and in no way a response by the authorities to the EFF protest, the electricity supply situation actually has improved in recent days, a relief to hard-pressed citizens and businesses.

At their worst, the outages were costing between $50 million and $100 million a day.

Critics of the EFF march, including other opposition groupings and the government, pointed out that putting another day’s halt to the economy, in order to protest the cost to the economy of the power outages, was a self-contradiction.

But Malema has not been moved by such arguments, saying, “how can we sit and do nothing when the country is being run into the ground?”

With the day’s protests focused on the EFF’s planned march on Parliament’s temporary seat in the Cape Town City Hall, authorities in the Mother City, as Cape Town is often dubbed, as well as the opposition Democratic Party-controlled Western Cape province, say they are prepared and determined to prevent repeats of running street battles, blocked roads and looted shops such as has happened during prior protests.

Western Cape authorities said Sunday they were on 'high alert', additional police having been allocated to key points and strategic sites, and roads also being protected by police, with SA National Defence Force playing a 'support role' and already in place.

Many social media posts, sounding much like what happened in KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021, and calling for looting of businesses which defy the EFF’s ‘shutdown’, have been cited by authorities, and in the related court proceedings on Friday.

Police say they will use cyber security laws to clamp down on instigators of violence.

Right to protest

An attitude of 'no tolerance' was being adopted, warned both Western Cape and national authorities, the latter in the form of comments by President Ramaphosa that people had a right to protest peacefully, but not to riot or cause harm to others or their property in any way.

Western Cape premier Allan Winde drove that same point home, with police and army leadership in support, during a briefing Sunday on Cape Town’s and the region’s preparations for what may turn into a series of running battles between protesters and police.

The authorities had learned from past incidents and were sure they had taken sufficient steps to prevent a repeat, said Winde, adding: “Monday must be an ordinary Monday.”

Some unions have backed the EFF protest but most have not— a recent public servants’ strike was largely resolved last week, and major minibus taxi (matatu) associations are also doing “business as usual”.

These factors all mitigate against a very large turnout for the planned protests, to be led by the country’s third largest political party with around 12 percent popular support at the last national polls.

Showdown looms

Cape Town and Johannesburg authorities, in particular, were hopeful that the protest turnout would consequently be low, controllable and with limited impact.

But the EFF said it was determined “to bring the country to a halt”, setting the scene for showdowns wherever there are sufficient protesters willing to follow through with threats of looting and related attacks, as seen in social media.

Police Minister Bheki Cele said Sunday that efforts were being made to ensure any “political action” did not take on a racial or ethnic aspect, as happened in the July 2021 riots in parts of Durban in Kwazulu-Natal province, where residents of a predominantly ‘Indian’ suburb allegedly shot down two to three dozen protesters allegedly intent on looting shops and homes in their suburb.

Political commentators have pointed out that Tuesday is a national holiday, commemorating at its root an apartheid-era massacre, meaning many schools and businesses were to be closed Monday anyway, creating what amounts to a long weekend.

Four-day break

This means many would not have been at work or in classes, but rather enjoying a four-day break, with or without the EFF action.

The timing was considered therefore to be a “clever” move by the EFF, which can expect a much slower business day and so be able, whatever else happens, to say its protest had been “effective”.

Despite Malema saying the EFF wanted only peaceful protests, Cape Town authorities used video evidence in the High Court Friday to show that ad hoc roadblocks have been planned, among other outlawed protest actions.

Winde, and law and order leadership in Cape Town said some 4,000 used tyres, gathered at key locations to apparently facilitate ‘spontaneous’ street barricades being built, had been removed, along with any other objects which could be used to make ad hoc road blockades.