South Africa “ripe for a coup”, according to former ANC leaders

By Carien du Plessis
Posted on Friday, 22 July 2022 20:01

South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives for working session during so-called outreach summit at the G7 leaders' summit
South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa arrives for working session during so-called outreach summit at the G7 leaders' summit at the Bavarian resort of Schloss Elmau castle, near Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, June 27, 2022. REUTERS/Lukas Barth/File Photo

Former president Thabo Mbeki has warned that conditions are ripe in South Africa for a possible Arab Spring-style putsch - and his view is shared by a number of influential political and business leaders in the country. Is a coup possible in the country home to Africa's most sophisticated economy?

Recent events in Sri Lanka – Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to resign as president earlier this month after protesters took over his home – also prompted South Africa’s intelligence services to re-assess the risk of another uprising in the country.

In July last year in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, large-scale looting and arson saw around 400 people killed and significant economic damage inflicted while police were either unable or unwilling to act. The deployment of the army eventually brought calm.

Arab Spring warning

Mbeki on Thursday 21 July told mourners at the memorial service of African National Congress (ANC) deputy secretary Jessie Duarte, who died on Sunday after suffering from cancer, that he fears South Africa could have its “own version of the Arab Spring”.

He referred to Tunisia, where the rebellion started in 2010 and where the government was overthrown by the protesters, followed by Egypt. “It was because problems were brewing under the surface, and the anarchy just needed a little spark.”

This was in reference to the arrest of a hawker that served as a catalyst for the uprisings in Tunisia, which took place against a backdrop of socio-economic problems in late 2010 and early 2011.

Pressures in South Africa

South Africa has some similarities to the countries affected by the Arab Spring. In South Africa, the unemployment rate was at record highs of 63.9% for those aged 15 to 24 and 42.1% for those aged 25 to 34 years in the first quarter of 2022.

Annual consumer price inflation was 6.5% in May 2022, the highest in five years.

Former president Mbeki said he feared an Arab Spring-type uprising would happen in South Africa. “You can’t have so many people unemployed, so many people living in poverty, faced with lawlessness and faced with corrupt leadership and not expect the situation to not one day explode,” Mbeki said.

Wide fears for an overthrow

This view is shared by a number of members of the ANC’s national executive committee, as well as by some of those who served with Mbeki in the ANC’s leadership prior to 2007.

“Things are ripe for a coup. All the warning signs are there,” one former ANC leader tells The Africa Report. “Look at the way those coups are being supported by the ordinary people,” he says, with reference to the Sri Lankan uprising as well as some of the most recent coups in West Africa.

Most leaders say they doubt that South Africa’s army – which is largely non-political – is capable of launching a coup, as happened in Guinea last year. But they consider Ramaphosa to be vulnerable.

Within party ranks, last year’s riots are referred to as an insurrection. The ANC asserts in its policy discussion documents, set to be discussed at the party’s conference next weekend, that the mass looting and arson amounted to a failed coup.

“The orchestrators of the 2021 acts of subversion were unambiguous in their intention to remove a democratically established government by extra-constitutional means,” the document says, citing the demands of the protesters for the dissolution of parliament and their intimidation of law enforcement officers.

Although some of those implicated in the looting and killing have been prosecuted, sources point out that the real kingpins, allies of former president Jacob Zuma, are still walking free. The uprisings started soon after Zuma was jailed after defying a constitutional court order to testify before a commission examining the large-scale corruption that took place during his administration.

Seeds of discontent

A former policy adviser in government says government leaders have been slow to recognise the danger signs of discontent.

“Look at the number of brazen petty crimes. These are guys who sit around and drink in taverns. A couple of years ago, they would have been employed because they have qualifications and diplomas from [technical] colleges,” he tells The Africa Report.

A few days ago, a group of young men with guns walked into a mid-range clothing store and looted stock off the racks. There are little consequences for such crimes due to police inaction.

“Our ministers are talking about unemployed youth and uncontrolled immigration as being ticking time bombs, but they are failing to do something about it,” he says.

Mbeki’s criticism also extended to Ramaphosa’s government. “We do not have a national plan to address the challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality. It does not exist,” he said.

He also said that Ramaphosa called for a social compact within 100 days his state of the nation address in February, but “nothing has happened.”

Ramaphosa “is trying”

Rampahosa’s spokesperson, Vincent Magwenya, acknowledges that Mbeki’s argument that things are moving too slowly “is widely shared across society against the scale of challenges faced in the country, coming out of the Covid pandemic and a stagnant economy even before Covid”.

Magwenya said Ramaphosa “is doing his best to push as many reforms as quickly as possible”.

Asked whether the events in Sri Lanka were a wake-up call for Ramaphosa’s government, Magwenya says the unemployment statistic each quarter is such a wake-up call.

“The president and his administration are not insulated from the realities on the ground. Those realities are well-known and well understood.”

Mbeki’s return

Mbeki has been so critical of the ANC under Zuma that he largely kept out of ANC activities after Zuma defeated him to become ANC president in 2007.

His return after Ramaphosa’s election in 2017 has been considered as an endorsement for Ramaphosa, but Mbeki has of late been critical of the President.

ANC insiders say Mbeki has found a new following within the ANC from those within the party who are critical of Ramaphosa but who refuse to be associated with the Zuma supporters in the party.

Ramaphosa is seeking re-election at the party’s national conference in December.

Although he does not hold an elected position in the party, Mbeki, as a former president, is a lifelong ex officio member of the party’s national executive committee. As a party elder, he has been supporting the party’s “renewal” drive to rid itself of corrupt leaders.

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