South Africa is picking up the pieces after days of looting and rioting in the country’s two most populous provinces. The unrest grew out of protests by grassroots African National Congress (ANC) members against the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, who is accused of corruption and state capture. The country’s intelligence agencies have now assessed that these protests were orchestrated by his associates as leverage to pry Mr Zuma out of jail.

Allegations of insurrection offer President Cyril Ramaphosa an opportunity to purge the ANC of remaining factional rivals and move beyond the infighting that has paralysed the party and government since 2017. The opportunity comes at an enormous cost, however. Zuma remains in prison, but only after hundreds of deaths, economic disruption, and the army on the streets. The scenes have underlined how distant the former liberation movement’s promise of a more equal nation remains nearly three decades after apartheid ended. The unemployment rate hit 32.5% in late 2020, and 74.7% for the under-24s of the “born-free” generation. Both rates are likely to have reached new record highs during a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Optimists point to the apparent resilience of South Africa’s judicial institutions and the rule of law, corroded under Zuma’s presidency, and renewed prospects for Ramaphosa to implement policies that could reduce economic dysfunction. The ANC’s issues go deeper than one particular faction though. Fragmented opposition parties have enabled it to override disillusionment, but signs of weakness could reignite factional competition, further degrading the party's ability to address South Africa’s many problems.

With only 3% of the population fully vaccinated, the economy’s malaise will likely continue well into 2022. Municipal elections due in October are expected to be postponed due to the pandemic, but without tangible measures to mend the fraying social contract, another outbreak of unrest could deliver a swifter verdict.

This article first appeared in the Axco Flashpoints newsletter, which provides monthly analysis on emerging risks and geopolitics from our Global Risk Intelligence and Data (GRID) team. You can sign up at