Analysis

South Africa: security and operational threats to persist

  • Africa
  • Political and Economic Risk Consulting

South Africa: security and operational threats to persist



The violent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces in South Africa prompted by the sentencing and subsequent imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma (2009-18) on 29 June has begun to ease following the deployment on 12 July of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).

  • Security threats will gradually decline over the coming days, though isolated incidents of unrest will persist, primarily around Johannesburg (Gauteng) and Durban (KwaZulu-Natal).
  • Nonetheless, the situation remains tense and several potential triggers could prompt a resurgence in unrest and other security threats.
  • Operational challenges are likely to persist over the coming weeks amid ongoing supply chain disruption and goods shortages.

Unrest

The Constitutional Court on 29 June sentenced Zuma to 15 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court. The sentence relates to Zuma’s refusal to cooperate with the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture (the “Zondo Commission”) and a series of public verbal attacks since the beginning of the year on the judiciary. He also refused to participate in the Constitutional Court process after the Zondo Commission filed the contempt of court case. His prison term began on 7 July.

Zuma’s sentencing triggered several isolated incidents of unrest in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. These escalated and spread to Gauteng province after his imprisonment, though much of the unrest was driven more by socioeconomic grievances than support for Zuma. Protesters blockaded several major highways, attacking vehicles with stones, petrol (gasoline) bombs and – in some reported cases – gunfire. Retail outlets, particularly in shopping malls, and warehouses were looted and damaged. On 13 July, the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (NATJOINTS) stated that there had been 72 deaths and 1,234 arrests.

On 12 July the government began to deploy the SANDF to Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, with the goal of deploying 25,000 troops. This has driven a decline in unrest in both Johannesburg and Durban, but sporadic unrest has persisted in some neighbourhoodsRioting and looting were reported on 14 July in Vosloorus and Thembisa townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg, while parts of the N3 toll road in KwaZulu-Natal province remained closed on 15 July due to security concerns.

Outlook

Security threats are likely to continue to decline over the coming days. The SANDF has proved capable of deterring protests and responding early to emerging unrest. Police have quickly contained isolated incidents of unrest in townships around Mbombela,  Mpumalanga province and Kimberley, Northern Cape province. Unrest is unlikely to spread outside Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, in part because of precautionary measures taken by the South African Police Service (SAPS).

Although a resurgence of unrest is unlikely, several factors could trigger renewed outbreaks. These include further developments in the ongoing legal proceedings around Zuma – either around his attempt to have his sentence rescinded, heard by the Constitutional Court on 12 July, or further revelations during the Zondo Commission.

There is also potential for an escalation in racial tensions and associated violence. In Phoenix – a town north of Durban – clashes between local community militias from the predominantly Indian community and predominantly black protesters have driven a rise in racial tensions. The clashes have led to condemnation and some calls for retaliation on social media, often mobilised around the hashtags #PhoenixMassacre and #IndiansMustFall. There have also been numerous reports of white militias forming in response to the unrest. A high-profile incident or the spread of misinformation on social media could prompt further unrest.

Threats to operators

At the height of the unrest protesters targeted retail outlets for looting and arson, as well as vehicles in transit. As shopping centres were cleared of items, looters began to target warehouses. Residential properties were not targeted, though some located close to retail outlets were damaged. Similarly, commercial personnel do not appear to have been targeted. However, any personnel travelling in or around Johannesburg and Durban faced severe incidental threats, with vehicles travelling on major highways around Johannesburg and Durban indiscriminately targeted.

Although security threats are likely to continue to decline, the situation remains volatile. Similar targeting patterns would be likely to emerge in the event of a resurgence in unrest or in the unlikely event that it spreads to other provinces.

In addition, supply chain disruption caused by the unrest has driven significant shortages of fuel, food and medicine in both Johannesburg and Durban. On 14 July state-owned company Transnet declared force majeure on the railway line that links Johannesburg to the ports of Durban and Richards Bay, while the blockading of roads has prevented deliveries to Johannesburg and Durban.

While supply chains are starting to resume as unrest declines, ongoing disruption is likely over the coming weeks as backlogs in deliveries cause congestion on many road and rail routes. Shortages may also encourage a short-term spike in theft and robberies, posing threats to business assets and personnel.

Continued isolated incidents of unrest are likely to periodically cause roadblocks even after the situation has largely returned to normal. Meanwhile, safety concerns could reduce the number of commercial vehicles available or prompt labour unrest by drivers seeking to renegotiate pay or conditions. Fuel shortages are likely to persist after the Sapref oil refinery – which accounts for roughly a third of South Africa’s refining capacity – declared force majeure on 13 July.

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