South Africa: social anger rumbles


Drelentless and crucial statistics for the social and political climate. Unemployment in South Africa rose further in the last quarter of 2021 to reach a new record of 35.3%, the State Statistics Office announced on Tuesday (March 29). That is the absolute record in fourteen years. “This is the highest unemployment rate ever,” StatsSA said in a statement. The official exchange rate had reached 34.9% in the previous quarter. The continent’s leading industrial power now has 7.9 million unemployed out of a population of almost 60 million. Young people are particularly affected, more than 66% of 15-24 year olds are affected.

Add to that the devastating impact of the health crisis associated with the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy and the workplace. Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a further easing of restrictions, in particular the lifting of the obligation for the PCR test for vaccinated people, in the hope of reviving tourism. Will that be enough to bring the pressure down into the country?

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Faced with record high unemployment, foreigners are scapegoats

In this situation, foreign nationals have become scapegoats. The government has been on all fronts in recent months, in addition to having to direct the anger demonstrations against foreign workers, it must also meet its political opposition. South Africa is occasionally plagued by xenophobia. 62 people were killed in riots in 2008. Violent clashes broke out in 2015, 2016 and again in 2019.

But since January, a movement called “Operation Dudula,” which means “oppression” in Zulu, has gained momentum and spread across the country. Far from being episodic, the proximity of “Operation Duduala,” which claims to be pacifist, with political movements is unclear. The demonstrations randomly bring together members of an organization active during the xenophobic riots called South Africa First, and veterans of the armed wing of the ANC called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, “Spearhead of the Nation”), who recently distanced themselves from the historic party by power since its liquidation. The leader, Nhlanhla Lux Dlamini, an activist in his thirties from Soweto, invariably dressed in military fatigue and a bulletproof vest during his public appearances, explained that he wanted to “defend the future of South Africans”. Including going to stores to demand foreign workers fired. “That’s the law: all work that does not require special skills belongs to South Africans in South Africa,” he reminds everyone who wants to listen.

Even Julius Malema, the leader of Economic Freedom Fighters, who presents himself as a pan-African, endorsed the anti-immigrant rhetoric, saying employers should refrain from prioritizing immigrants over South African citizens. He did not hesitate last month to visit restaurants in the province of Gauteng to check the employment relationship between South African nationals and foreign nationals. Finally Julius Malema came to the conclusion that the problem is employers who prioritize foreign labor because they can take advantage of them. “Did not hate foreigners, hated the owner of the restaurant, for these foreigners were not hired,” he later told OpenDemocracy.

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The government is under pressure

South Africa has 3.95 million foreigners, according to official statistics, out of a population of almost 60 million. The continent’s leading industrial power struggles with more than 35% unemployment, but attracts many African migrants. “Even if they expelled all the immigrants, it would not change the level of crime or unemployment,” Jay Naidoo, first secretary general of the main trade union center (Cosatu), told AFP.

Faced with the scale of the movement, the government has announced plans for a law establishing quotas for foreign employees in South African companies in certain sectors.

Not enough for the first opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, which wanted to see the whole government go. Almost two years ago, before the pandemic actually hit, he filed a no-confidence motion, the first for Ramaphosa. The vote will take place on Wednesday afternoon in the South African Parliament. The result should not prevent the head of state from seeking re-election at the head of his party at the ANC Congress, which is to be held next December.

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