Civil unrest report commentary

For the period of 14 July – 20 July 2020 the Protest Query run by CABC returned: 15 157 mentions. 7 516 unique authors were involved in the conversation. Using that query forty (40) separate protests were identified as having occurred in the past week within South Africa. This document provides analysis and commentary on those protests, as well as on the online conversation about protests and civil unrest in South Africa.

Download Report (PDF)

The Query

The query looks at news, forums, blogs and twitter, and is designed to collect media items that mention protests or terms related to protest.

The query only gathers media items from within South Africa. For the period 14 July – 20 July the query returned a total of 15 157 mentions. A total of 7 516 unique authors were involved in the conversation. Total mentions decreased by 22%, down from 19 551, while unique authors decreased by 18%, from 9 212.

The query was used to search online for protests or mentions of protests or looting. The full search query is found in Appendix A. This was complemented with simple searches on the Twitter platform.

The Trends

The volume for the conversation over the reported period was as follows:

The scale on the left indicates that the total number of mentions at volumetric peak by hour was just over 250 mentions/per hour. Overall the conversation decreased in volume (total mentions) and participants (unique authors) by roughly 20%. While there were 40 protests reported on during the period 14 – 20 July, none of them featured strongly in the online conversation.

The Civil Unrest Query captures all mentions of protest (and associated words), as well as looting (and associated words) online. Looting is an ambiguous term, it may refer to the physical looting of shops, or it may refer to the looting of state resources and corruption. This latter use is often associated with a decrease in government legitimacy, which is associated with civil unrest and protest. Consequently, both uses are captured within the Civil Unrest Report.

As with previous weeks, looting and corruption dominated the Civil Unrest conversation. The top topic was ‘looting state funds’, with 1571 mentions. ‘South Africans’ was the 2nd most-mentioned topic, with 751 mentions, while ‘ANCestors’ was the 3rd most-mentioned topic with 537 mentions. The spike on 14 July was caused by various online commentators discussing state looting, especially this tweet, which was retweeted 553 between 7am and 11am on 14 July:

The word cloud below shows, ranked by size, the most-used #hashtags within the conversation on protests online over the past week:

Words in red are trending, while those in gray are fading. The three most-mentioned hashtags: #eccomradesincorruption, #amasela and #covid_19 are all related to corruption and state-looting. They are from the tweet below, authored by Bantu Holomisa.

The word-cloud below shows the top phrases and keywords used by South Africans involved in the conversation on protests during the week of 14 July – 20 July:

In this word cloud, we can see the most mentioned keywords and phrases in the Civil Unrest conversation were: state (with 2643 mentions), funds (2400 mentions), ANC (2299 mentions), corruption (1946 mentions) and reporting (1715 mentions). All of these words were used in relation to ANC looting of state funds. Looting of government resources has been a growing topic of conversation as the coronavirus pandemic continues across the country and there has been an increase in the number of complaints from civilians unable to access the various relief measures put in place by the government.

The tweet below, authored by Waldimar Pelser, editor for Rapport and News24 on 17 July, was one of the most retweeted items that mention ‘state’.

The extension of the ban on the sale of cigarettes, the reinstatement of the ban on the sale of alcohol, and the growing conversation online regarding looting of COVID-19 relief funds by state officials are contributing to the erosion of the legitimacy of South Africa’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A number of politicians and political commentators have been critical of the response to the pandemic, as evidenced by these tweets below, authored by @Leon_Schreib@HermanMashaba and @Abramjee. These narratives have received moderate levels of support online.

Protests Occurring in South Africa 14 – 20 July 2020

A total of forty (40) protests were recorded in the Civil Unrest Report for the period 14 July to 20 July 2020. The table below shows a breakdown of the motives or issues that led to the protests occurring:

A total of 40 protests that occurred between 14 July and 20 July were found using the Civil Unrest Query. 18 of these protests were of unknown motive.

In the previous reporting period, 11 protests related to COVID-19 were found. This week, only three were recorded. One protest was reported on 14 July by healthcare workers at the Gateway Clinic in Mon Frere, Eastern Cape. Workers downed tools and demanded safer working conditions. Two other protests were reported on the 17th. The first protest was in relation to workers at the Volkswagen factory in Uitenhage. The workers were demanding safer working conditions as well as their UIF money. Volkswagen workers claimed that people in isolation and awaiting results were being called to work. The second protest on that day occurred at Western Cape Education Department. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, between 100 and 150 learners from Indwe Secondary School protested against the reopening of their school. They were requested to disperse from the location by police officers.

Nine of the ten service delivery protests were related to electricity. Community members in Vryburg in the North West Province staged a protest after being without electricity for one week. A similar protest was held in Alexandra in Johannesburg. The protestors barricaded the road with rocks and burning tires. Residents of Pimville in Soweto also staged a protest in response to electricity cuts in the locality. The residents have been without electricity for the past six weeks. Eskom has cited illegal connections as the reason for the power outage. The protestors claimed that they were shot with rubber bullets during the protest and that some protestors required medical attention. Another protest was recorded by community members at the intersection of the N2 and the R300 near Delft. The reason for the protest was an electricity cut due to cable theft at Wesbank. Two trucks were set alight causing a significant traffic jam.

All three of the recorded housing protests occurred in the Western Cape region. The residents of Mfuleni initiated protests in response to being constantly relocated. The residents claimed that they were overlooked (at the expense of neighboring community members) for the allocation of housing units. The protest further led to the burning of Eskom vehicles and causing injuries to 6 train workers. Train workers were directed to stop works in the Khayelitsha line and Eskom halted any work until its workers were ensured safety. The protest grew violent which led to the bombing of a bus and two cars. The protest also led to a one million rand worth of damage after the protestors torched the a COVID-19 Treatment Centre and the Desmond Tutu Community Hall. Residents from Hlalani were also protesting over housing issues outside Knysna. They barricaded the road and the police had to intervene. The protestors began throwing rocks at police cars, however, the police were able to disperse the crowd.

Three employment-related protests were recorded. Two of the protests were connected to unfair or unpaid salaries. 50 community health workers were dispersed by the police after they protested Eastern Cape Department of Health head office in Bhisho. The workers requested permanent employment instead of working under contract. Builder workers also staged a protest and demanded their wages from a resident in the Eldoglen Estate in Centurion. The resident claims that the company that sub-contracted the workers was paid in full. Finally, members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) protested outside ArcelorMittal offices in response to a possible retrenchment. NUMSA claims that the company is using COVID-19 as an excuse to restructure the organization.

A schooling protest was also observed. Students of the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Pretoria staged a protest and alleged that the school has failed to distribute gadgets and data to students in need. The president of the Student Representative Council stated that the University should prioritize those coming from a poor background. However, no learning aid has been distributed since April.

One gender-based violence protest was reported on the 17th at Bisley Park Primary School, in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.The protest was initiated by the staff of Bisley Park Primary School against gender-based violence. As condemned by the South African Deputy President David Mabuza, GBV has been on the rise since COVID-19.

On the 18th, hundreds of people protested outside the parliament in Cape Town against the increase in farm killings. Groups such as the DA and AfriForum have claimed that farm killings have been on the increase since the end of the hard lockdown. The protestors stated that farm violence is not being acknowledged by the government. Their demands included farm violence being declared a ‘national key point’. In recent years, there has been a growing focus on the ‘farm murders’ narrative. While the narrative that there is a ‘white genocide’ occurring on farms is not supported by statistical evidence, it is a politically significant narrative that has the potential to cause futher civil unrest and social division within South Africa.

Situational Analysis

In this section, we provide a more detailed analysis of the various protests and the civil unrest detected. The aim of this section is to unpack emerging themes and issues that were observed while capturing the protests online.


On the 14th of July, South Africa’s largest teachers Union, SADTU, has called on authorities for the closure of schools until the number of COVID-19 cases decreases. As of 8th of June, schools started to reopen with Grade 7 and 12. However, this was followed by an increase in the number of infections. There has been a growing concern with parents about the safety of their children. This has led to several protests all over the country. Parents in Mpumalanga have forced three schools to shut down due to the shortage of protective equipment and water.

The fear of being infected has also led to a decrease in the number of educators. The Gauteng Education Department is looking for new educators after thousands of teachers applied to work from home or decided to resign. Furthermore, teachers above 60 are unable to report for duty because of high risk of contamination.

In response to the high risks, the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) has decided to shut down five high schools and eight primary schools in the township of Alexandra. COSAS claimed that their action was backed by parents and teachers however, the Gauteng Department of Education qualified this action as criminal in nature.

The ministry of Education Angie Motshekga stated that the cabinet will soon come to a decision as to whether schools should be closed now, with a view to reopening schools at the end of August 2020.

‘Land Grabs’ and Evictions happening across the Country

To address the coronavirus pandemic, evictions have been prohibited for the duration of the lockdown. While this has resulted in the protection of some tenants, it appears that these regulations have also been exploited by criminal elements and resulted in illegal ‘land grabs’ and protests in various locations across the country.

Carte Blanche recently reported on illegal land invasions in Elandsfontein, South of Johannesburg. In Elandsfontein, a syndicate was selling land that they did not own. People wishing to live there were paying R1500 for a demarcated stand, however, it emerged that land was privately owned and the owners of the land had not been involved in the sale process. Protests motivated by a similar issue occurred in June 2020 outside Malmesbury in Silvertown, Western Cape where land had also been illegally sold.

Our research indicates a significant increase in these illegal ‘land grabs’ during lockdown. These ‘land grabs’ have been reported in various locations across the Western Cape, including: Delft, Du Noon, Firgrove, Khayelitsha, Kraaifonein, Mfuleni, Milnerton, Nyanga and Strand. It should be noted that the claim that all of the protests and evictions in these areas are related to illegal land-grabs are, at this stage, unverified.

It is believed that criminals are illegally selling plots of land that they do not own and that buyers are encouraged to set up their shacks as quickly as possible so as to avoid eviction. These land grabs create complex situations with protests and counter-protests. When shacks are erected in illegal land grabs, people who have been living in the area may protest as a result of losing out on access to that land. Oftentimes, the land has been designated for future housing construction meant to benefit the existing residents of the area. If the shacks are destroyed, those living in them may protest to express their dissatisfaction with being evicted from a property they have paid for.

Speaking about the recent slew of land invasions in the Western Cape, Mayoral Committee Member for Safety and Security in Cape Town, JP Smith, has been quoted as saying that “‘unscrupulous, greedy’ activists with political ambitions, who seek to profiteer from the sale of plots, are instigating land invasions daily”. Smith also stated that “anywhere between five and 10 major land invasions are reported and tie up the authorities, preventing them from doing crime prevention and important work elsewhere”.

During the preceding week, there has been a high level of civil unrest in Khayelitsha and a number of surrounding areas; land grabs and attempts to set up new shacks have taken place in various locations in and around the township. The situation escalated when “massive land grabs” took place in Mfuleni at the start of July. People have also been attempting to settle on a piece of land near Noxolo Xauka Primary School in Khayelitsha despite the City of Cape Town’s attempts to remove them. In both Mfuleni and Khayelitsha, the City of Cape Town demolished a number of shacks. Following this, residents attempted to erect shacks again. The destruction of these shacks led to a number of protests that occurred in both Mfuleni and Khayelitsha. Protests escalated and resulted in a number of road closures, as well as various instances of violence and damage to public property. The violence and damage in Khayelitsha and Mfuleni has been extensive and includes the burning of a community centre and a COVID-19 facility. In separate incidents, firefighters were attacked, a Dial-a-Ride vehicle was also stoned and a journalist was attacked and robbed. Two Eskom vehicles were also damaged in Khayelitsha, and Eskom have officially announced that they will not service the area until it is safe to do so. This may have significant consequences as Khayelitsha is a large area with roughly half a million inhabitants.

In another instance in Nyanga, an incomplete housing project has been occupied by people claiming to be the rightful owners of the properties. City of Cape Town officials have said that these occupations are illegal and may compromise the real beneficiaries of the project. City of Cape Town officials further stated that these occupations are illegal, criminal actions.

The recurring protests that took place in Du Noon in June, which resulted in the burning of trucks and damage to public transport infrastructure, are believed to have been caused by similar illegal land grabs. It must be noted that while the City of Cape Town have described all of their evictions as attempts to stop illegal land grabs, it has not been possible to verify whether all of the reported evictions and protests in Cape Town were indeed preceded by illegal land grabs.

Recently, the City of Cape Town has been criticised for its handling of evictions, particularly in Hangberg and in Khayelitsha. The eviction in Hangberg resulted in days of protest in Hout Bay. The Western Cape High Court recently ruled that the evictions were unlawful. The eviction in Khayelitsha made international news after a video of a man being dragged naked from his shack during an eviction circulated online. Following this incident, the man and the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) have opened criminal cases against the City of Cape Town.

The prohibition of evictions during lockdown may be considered an appropriate component of the national government’s response to the coronavirus and the economic hardships that South African citizens will face over the coming months. However, it appears that an unintended consequence of this prohibition has been a massive upsurge in illegal land invasions. It is expected these will continue, destabilizing residential areas and possibly overwhelming local governments and law enforcement agencies.

Service Delivery

Service delivery was the motivation for 10 protests over the period 14 July – 20 July. Nine of these ten protests were electricity-related. Failures in power supply often trigger protests. This was seen in Nyanga this week when residents protested after five days without electricity.

In efforts to improve service delivery, City Power in Johannesburg and Eskom in Cape Town have attempted to reduce the number of illegal connections to the national electricity supply grid. These actions are part of their efforts to improve the electricity supply infrastructure. This is often met with resistance from residents in informal areas such as an incident that occurred earlier in July when City Power staff were held hostage.

Illegal connections often result in damage to infrastructure and frequent power outages as a result of overloading. Protests in Motherwell, Eastern Cape took place this week as illegal connections led to frequent power cuts for residents of this formal housing suburb. The tensions in Motherwell, between residents of an informal settlement and formal housing across the road, escalated to the point that a community leader was shot this week.

There have been recurring protests over electricity provision In Orange Farm, Johannesburg, these have featured in previous Civil Unrest Reports reporting. On 16 July, GroundUp reported that a number of homes in the area have been without power for over two years. Residents illegally bridged their electricity meters and bought tokens from illegal vendors, enabling them to access electricity at a significantly reduced rate. Eskom has fined each of these residents R6052.30. Many residents are unable to pay this fine. Residents have both begged and protested to have their electricity reconnected.

In Orange Farm and other areas, illegal connections and the bridging of electricity meters cause damage to an already overburdened infrastructure. It is anticipated that protests over electricity provision will continue as power outages occur across the country.

Civil Unrest Trends on the Horizon

Alcohol Ban

The announcement by President Cyril Rhamaphosa that alcohol sales would be banned again has been met with resistance, with numerous industries and organisations planning to protest. A number of commentators have expressed concern over the economic consequences of the alcohol ban, particularly the jobs that will be lost by those employed in the hospitality and wine-making sectors.

The ‘million seats on the streets’ protest is set to take place on 22 July 2020, at 12pm- 2pm. According to the Restaurant Association of South Africa (RASA), tables and chairs will be used to block roads outside various establishments to highlight the massive impact that the COVID-19 lockdown regulations have had on the industry.

Another peaceful protest has been planned by the #ServeUsPlease movement. It will take place on Friday 24 July from 10am – 12pm in Cape Town.

As reported by SABC News on the 14th of July 2020, tavern and shebeen owners in Port Elizabeth picketed outside the African National Congress’ Florence Matomela House to protest against the ban on alcohol sales during the lockdown. The protesters handed over a petition signed by licenced tavern owners. Their demands included being informed well in advance on decisions that will impact their businesses.

As part of raising awareness on the impact the ban of alcohol will have on job losses, Rasa CEO Wendy Alberts has encouraged business owners to share black and white images on social media showing how many jobs have been affected at their respective establishments using the hashtag #JobsSaveLives.

The call has been made for restaurants to operate with lesser restrictions. Restaurants state that they are unable to operate feasibly with the curfew that has been set. Many restaurants are asking for the curfew to be lifted.

It was reported in May that 18 000 jobs had been lost as a result of the alcohol ban. The Western Cape wine farming region has been the most badly affected by the alcohol ban. It has emerged that over a dozen wine farms are planning to take the National Government to court over the ban, as they predict a “job massacre” will result from the second alcohol ban.


The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) has threatened mass action against Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula and the taxi industry over the decision to let taxis operate at full capacity. COSATU stated that it does not support the decision to increase the taxi load from 70% to 100% as it is still not safe. COSATU stated that COVID-19 is now reaching its peak and more people could be exposed to the virus. COSATU called on government to reverse the decision, stating that it would approach the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) to submit a Section 77 notice which involves protest action.

Eastern Cape Deterioration

COVID-19 has devastated the Eastern Cape province, and exposed the province’s public healthcare shortcomings. The premier of the Eastern Cape Oscar Mabuyane announced on 30 June that the healthcare system has been “overwhelmed.” The coronavirus pandemic has also highlighted failures in service delivery across the province, severely affecting residents’ water and food security. The mismanagement of food parcels has left many financially strained families in a vulnerable position. An article published by News24 stated that an increase in job losses has caused the number of households that are going hungry to double, forcing children and families in Peddie, Eastern Cape to eat plants to survive. Researchers in the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS) Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM), found that 47% of respondents reported that their household ran out of money to buy food in April 2020. This is in comparison to 21% in the previous year.

The supply of clean water during the coronavirus pandemic is a major issue in the Eastern Cape. Over the past weeks, protests over the lack of clean water have increased. At the beginning of the national lockdown, the government supplied tanks for areas that don’t have a regular supply of water. These measures have not solved the province’s water supply problem. Many areas in the province still have no access to clean water, forcing residents to protest. On 14 July 2020, Mail & Guardian reported that police officers opened fire on protesters as they poured filthy local water from bottles on to their hands in protest.

The lack of adequate PPE and the state of the healthcare sector has further highlighted the issues in the province. On 17 July 2020, protesting nurses were chased away by police in riot gear after waiting to see the health department head at the Eastern Cape Department of Health head office in Bhisho to discuss permanent employment as majority of them had been on three months contracts since 1992 and are receiving R3,500 monthly salaries with no benefits or pension.

The failure to deliver services in the Eastern Cape province, combined with the increased economic hardships and job losses that will result from the various coronavirus pandemic restrictions that have been implemented may cause a severe increase in food insecurity across the Eastern Cape. It is expected that as these hardships become more apparent to residents across the Eastern Cape, protest action and civil unrest will increase.


Using the CABC social media Civil Unrest query,15 157 mentions and 7516 unique authors were identified. 40 protests were found to have occurred between 14 and 20 July 2020. Of these, 10 were related to service delivery, while 18 had no known motive. Three protests were motivated by housing concerns. COVID-19 concerns resulted in three protests. Employment accounted for three protests. Schooling, gender-based violence and crime accounted for one protest each.

The situational analysis identifies 3 main emerging themes. The opening of schools has been the subject of debate and protest across the whole country. SADT, the country’s largest teacher’s union, as well as the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) have qualified the opening of schools as risky and have pointed out that the number of infections have increased since the 8th of June. This has led to forced closure of many schools by COSAS and by the parents. Because of the fear of infection, teachers are also reluctant to work, thus forcing the Gauteng Department of Education to look for new educators. Representing the Ministry of Education, Angie Motshekga stated on the 21st July that cabinet will come to a decision soon as to whether schools should be closed immediately and reopened in August.

The prohibition of evictions during lockdown has been in favor of tenants. However, criminal elements have exploited this legislation, which has led to an increase in illegal land grabs. In one such case, in Elandsfontein, a syndicate was selling land that they did not own for R1500. Similar illegal sales resulted in a protest outside Silvertown, near Malmesbury, in the Western Cape. Such activities have been on the rise in several regions across the country. These land grabs have resulted in conflicts between the illegal occupants and the people who the land was destined for. Several protests occurred across Khayelitsha and Mfuleni this week. These protests were both by people attempting to erect shacks and by residents opposed to the erection of more shacks . This led to the burning of a community center and a COVID-19 facility. The City of Cape Town has been criticised for its handling of evictions, particularly in Hangberg and in Khayelitsha, however it appears that at least some of the evictions they have enacted were in response to illegal land grabs.

This week’s service delivery protests were mainly focused on electricity. Numerous residential areas have experienced power cuts in recent weeks, a part of Nyanga was without electricity for five days. Failures in delivering electricity often results in protests. As a means to remedy the situation, Eskom has attempted to reduce the number of illegal connections. Unfortunately, this resulted in civil unrest and protests, causing further damage to infrastructure.

With regards to civil unrest trends on the horizon, the banning of alcohol sales, the COSATU strike and the grave situation in the Eastern Cape were identified as areas of concern going forward. It must be noted that several planned protests in regards to the alcohol ban have been discussed on social media, under the hashtags #JobsSaveLives and #ServeUsPlease. The alcohol ban narrative is expected to result in more job losses in the restaurant sector across the country and the wine farming region of the Western Cape. The Eastern Cape health care system has struggled to manage in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this combined with the increase in job losses is expected to result in severe difficulties for poor and vulnerable residents across the province. It is expected that food insecurity and poverty may result in protest action in the Eastern Cape. The economic effects of the lockdown may also affect civil unrest and food security across the country.

Appendix A: Protest Query

Protest Query:

(#protestaction OR #unrest OR #looting OR #riots OR #riot OR #protests OR #shutdown OR toytoy OR looting) OR (“burning tires” OR “blocking road” OR “public protest”OR “protest action” OR “toy-toy”) OR ((protest* OR boipelaetso OR “ho toyi toya” OR baipelaetsi OR boipelaetso OR mogwantong OR badiraditshupetso OR “batho ba ba neng ba le mo mogwantong” OR izikhalazo OR ukuyichasa OR sabaqhankqalazi OR umchasi OR riot* OR morusu OR moferefere OR merusu OR “batho ba bakang merusu” OR “ho baka morusu” OR dikhuduego OR “tsosa khuduego” OR dintwa OR dikhuduego OR “ba etsang merusu” OR dikhuduego OR uqhushululu OR “izikhalazo isidubedube” OR neziphithiphithi OR Bavuthayo OR ukuzabalaza OR “ukuvusa uqhushululu” OR uqhankqalazo) NEAR/10 ((basic* OR essential* OR fundamental OR water OR food OR electricity) OR (freedom OR libert* OR ((civil OR public OR constitutional) NEAR/2 rights)) OR (((Medical OR health OR hospital OR PPE) NEAR/2 staff) OR nurse* OR doctor*) OR (worker* OR employee* OR staff) OR ((Prison NEAR/2 (staff OR officer* OR inmate*)) OR prisoner*))) OR author:RiotAndAttackSA OR author:BOSBEER2006 OR author:1SecondLater OR author:ProtestZA OR author:MARIUSBROODRYK OR author:IanCameron23 OR author:SAPoliceService OR author:ArriveAlive OR author:netstartraffic OR author:PigSpotter OR author:AfriNewsAgency OR author:takatsomoloi OR author:JoburgMPD OR author:TrafficSA OR author:viewfinderjourn OR author:sjcoalition OR author:UniteBehind OR author:ER24EMS OR author:EMERGCONTROL OR author:KZNEMS OR author:randpigspot OR author:FatalMoves OR author:takatsomoloi OR author:JPSAorg OR author:LimaCharlie1 OR author:ArriveAlive OR author:SAcrimefighters OR author:EWNTraffic OR author:GPCommSafety OR author:Dashcampros OR author:TrafficRTMC OR author:GTPTraffstats OR author:Abramjee OR author:1SecondLater OR author:CALSZA OR author:stolencarRSA OR author:SALTruckers OR author:WomenProtestSA OR author:FatalMoves NOT (striker* OR huawei OR #huaweiP40series OR “George Floyd” OR US OR USA)*

Download Report (PDF)


Issued by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change

About CABC

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) is a non-profit organisation based at UCTs Graduate School of Business and incubated by the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership. It was established to track and counter mis- and disinformation, fake news and divisive and polarising rhetoric that is promulgated online to undermine social cohesion, democratic integrity, and the stability of nation states.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *