South Africa

Companies brace for social unrest ahead of elections

Companies across South Africa are preparing for widespread social unrest and potentially a national shutdown during next week’s elections, which are set to be the most fiercely contested since 1994. 

Following the 2021 July Riots in KwaZulu Natal and parts of Gauteng and Mpumalanga, South African companies have increased their preparedness for widespread social unrest.

Businesses were forced to shut down, and employees stayed home for safety reasons, costing the economy R50 billion, according to the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa.

Next week’s elections are set to be a potential flashpoint which would spark a repeat of the July Riots on a larger scale. 

There have been various threats made by political parties, unions, and warnings from research institutes about the heightened potential for social unrest during the elections. 

Recently, the All Truck Drivers Forum and Allied SA threatened a national shutdown for Monday, May 20, urging all truckers to “down tools” until the government addresses its demands to remove foreigners from the trucking industry. 

These kinds of actions tend to spark further unrest, with the police’s crime intelligence unit warning that truckers may use the election uncertainty to block key routes and demand action against foreign truck drivers. 

Although the shutdown has since been suspended, private transport company City Logistics advised both logistics businesses and passenger drivers to assess affected routes and areas previously impacted by similar events. 

The company said individuals should check with local authorities for any incidents before sending trucks or driving into these areas.

Despite this warning, City Logistics said events such as social unrest tend to be vicious but short-lived. 

For example, the company saw a 31% decrease in volumes as a result of the July Riots, but within a month, its operations normalised. 

In the recently released Q4 2023 Small and Medium Enterprises (SME) Confidence Index, companies said they are concerned about the potential for social unrest during the national election.

“Several shifts in the electoral arena, including the introduction of independent candidates to the voting roll, the unprecedented large number of political parties contesting the elections as well as the uncertain majority of the ruling party, have added to the national air of uncertainty,” the report said.

For this survey, it posed a new question to its constituent of respondents, which is made up of local small business owners. 

Respondents were asked whether they were concerned that the imminent risk of economic turbulence and protest action during the election season would impact their operations.

Almost half of SME owners (49%) answered yes. About 33% of the respondents believed the elections would bring much-needed change.

A report released earlier this month revealed that the South African Police are concerned about unrest, violence, and boycotts in some parts of the country as the general elections loom.

City Press reported that a South African Police Service crime intelligence unit warns of numerous direct and indirect risks.

A direct risk is truckers blocking key routes. They demand that foreign drivers not be allowed to work in South Africa.

The report also highlighted specific areas which may be targeted, including parts of KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and North West.

It warned that many communities threaten to use the upcoming elections to protest poor service delivery.

Another concern is that police station armouries in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, and the Western Cape could be targeted by protestors who want to steal guns.

Former deputy chief of the South African Army, General Roland de Vries, warned that any trigger event around the elections could cause unrest and violence, similar to the July 2021 riots.

De Vries said that many trigger events can cause the state to lose control in specific areas, which could lead to anarchy in these areas.

He explained that the high youth unemployment, households struggling financially, and increased absolute poverty have created a dangerous environment.

“If the state finances collapsed, where it could no longer pay social grants, there will be havoc in South Africa,” he said.

This is not the only scenario that could trigger unrest and violence. Many other events, especially around the elections, could also lead to problems.

De Vries warned that the government is not well equipped to deal with these situations, which could lead to anarchy.

“Anarchy could erupt in small areas of the country and spread to create a dangerous situation in larger parts,” he said.


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