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After protests and looting tear through South Africa, the nation wonders: What now?

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DURBAN, South Africa — The sense of shock was palpable as a handful of residents stared at a shopping center in ruins.

Windows were smashed, the parking lot was filled with debris, and “Free Zuma” was spray-painted on the facade of The Ridge, a once-pristine center that sits on Shallcross Road, a major thoroughfare in Durban, a city of 600,000 people on the eastern coast of South Africa.

“Things can be recovered … but there is an impact in the community,” said Richard Ncube, 40, a former police officer whose cellphone repair stand looking out at The Ridge was also burgled in violence that convulsed the country in the wake of former President Jacob Zuma’s detention on charges of contempt of court last this month during his separate corruption trial.

“People who are staying here, buy here,” he said. “Now it’s pretty difficult for them. Where are they going to get food?”

People across South Africa are surveying the damage caused by the politically triggered riots. The city of Durban has estimated over $1 billion in damages and lost goods, which, along with 129,000 jobs at risk, could amount to a $1.4 billion hit to the port city’s gross domestic product.

Richard Ncube, left, and Dawood Phillip had devices and parts stolen from their cellphone repair shop during widespread unrest in Durban, South Africa.Linda Givetash / for NBC news

South Africa’s struggle to end whites-only rule and the brutal apartheid system without plunging into civil war made it an international byword for a victorious fight for democracy. Despite gains made in the last two decades, and even though it runs Africa’s third-largest economy now, millions of South Africans are still struggling, particularly during worsening economic conditions stoked by the coronavirus pandemic.

Violence like what happened last month shows that South Africa must reduce historic levels of inequality and crack down on official corruption, which experts say fueled the unrest. If it doesn’t, such flashpoints could become more common, experts and residents fear.

“Our children are going to grow up knowing that looting is not a crime,” Ncube said. “In 10 years to come, we’ll be doing this every year.”

‘People are sitting with nothing’

That Zuma supporters have come onto the streets to express their frustration is no surprise, said Narnia Bohler-Muller, a professor with the Human Sciences Research Council, the country’s public research agency.

“People are sitting with nothing, so it is very easy for fires to be stoked in that regard and take advantage of feelings of frustration in communities,” she said.

The poverty, as well as unresolved ethnic and tribal divisions, will also need to be addressed for South Africa to emerge from its precarious place, Bohler-Muller said in Pretoria.

At the heart of the country’s troubles is the African National Congress, a longtime anti-apartheid party that came to power in 1994 after the country’s first free elections.

The party’s big-tent approach allowed Zuma, a Zulu, to be president for nine years. Zuma secured support from his fellow ethnic Zulus for the party that was previously led by Xhosa peoples — the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Nelson Mandela and his successor as president, Thabo Mbeki.

A gas station outside the Ridge shopping center in Durban, South Africa, that was looted during riots.Linda Givetash / for NBC News

Speakers of Zulu are over a quarter of the population, making it the most common first language in the multilingual nation; nearly 15 percent of people speak isiXhosa.

Unlike his predecessors — one a freedom fighter and international icon and the other widely seen as a dry technocrat — Zuma relies on appeal resembling that of former President Donald Trump in the U.S., Bohler-Muller said.

“There is this rapport that is built around race, ethnicity, the concern for the poor,” she said. “And he can quite easily mobilize his followers.”

The Gini index, which measures inequality, has remained stagnant since the end of apartheid, hovering over 0.6, making South Africa the most unequal country in the world, according to the World Bank.

Black Africans made up the largest proportion of those below the poverty line in 2015 government data, at 47 percent, while white people made up just 0.4 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, Black Africans accounted for 11 percent of the wealthiest households in 2015 despite being 81 percent of the total population.

Card-carrying ANC member Trevor Kamato, 30, said he is a strong supporter of both Zuma and current President Cyril Ramaphosa. While he doesn’t think the violence diminished support for Zuma, he said it has affected the movement calling for his release.

Former South African President Jacob Zuma faces corruption and fraud charges connected to a 1990s arms deal. He pleaded not guilty this year.Nic Bothma / AFP – Getty Images file

“It has taken away some level of merit from the protest itself,” he said. “It makes it seem as though it was done for nefarious purposes.”

While Kamato, who is unemployed and lives in Johannesburg, acknowledged the failures of the government, he also said Zuma did a lot of good for the country.

“He has raised or has been vocal about some very important facets of the economy,” he said.

Zuma’s administration had said that during his tenure, it delivered millions of houses to the needy, as well as housing subsidies, and provided grants to over 17 million people in poverty.

That same year, a public inquiry was launched into a range of corruption allegations involving Zuma, from giving preferential treatment to businesses that had long-standing relations with him and his family to appointing Cabinet ministers who benefited private business interests. He also faces corruption and fraud charges in a separate trial regarding a 1990s arms deal, to which he pleaded not guilty this year.

The cost of his tenure to the economy exceeds $35 billion, if not double that, Ramaphosa said at the Financial Times Africa Summit in London in 2019.

Zuma’s supporters are largely a vocal minority. His approval rating upon leaving office in 2018 stood at just 30 percent, experts said. But the effect of the unrest can have wide-reaching effects both within the country and abroad, said Leaza Jernberg, an expert in geopolitics and international security based in Johannesburg.

“We have ports and infrastructure that a lot of countries inland don’t have, and that gives us an economic and political advantage,” she said. “I think that’s going to be our biggest concern, is how do you rebuild that image of South Africa as a gateway into Africa, and is that still appropriate?”

‘South Africa is for ANC’

What has been made starkly clear during the last weeks is just how much trust in official institutions has eroded. By 2018, only 30 percent of South Africans said they trusted the national government, down from 67 percent in 2004, according to a national survey.

Support for the century-old ANC, an emblem of modern South Africa, has also declined in recent years. In the 2019 election, it got 57 percent of the popular vote, down from 65 percent a decade earlier.

The persistent loyalty, however, leaves some disillusioned.

“South Africa is for ANC. They can do whatever,” said Dawood Phillip, 28, an employee of the looted cellphone repair shop at The Ridge.

A supporter of former South African President Jacob Zuma holds an African National Congress flag in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal on July 2. Emmanuel Croset / AFP – Getty Images file

Phillip would seem to be a natural constituent of the party, but he said that if he had to vote now, he would be at a loss about whom to choose.

“I don’t see anyone who is talking good things,” he said.

Bohler-Muller said the Democratic Alliance is perceived as too white for the majority-Black electorate, while the Economic Freedom Fighters are viewed as too radical in their left-leaning ideology.

Jernberg said that until the ANC rebuilds its image or splinters or another party emerges, it will be up to the public, and possibly cities, to set the course of the country.

The courts are also seen as a beacon of hope. Whatever verdict comes out of the corruption cases will send a clear message to the public, reassuring it no one is above the law.

“It will convince people because the court is trusted,” Bohler-Muller said.

It’s a sentiment even a Zuma supporter can agree with.

“The rule of law must always be upheld,” Kamato said. “Regardless of your political stature … if there is any evidence of wrongdoing against anybody, those people should be prosecuted.”

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