A National Shutdown planned by one of South Africa’s most prominent political parties, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), kicked off at 12:00 am on Monday, March 20th. The EFF had notified the South African public well in advance that the National Shutdown would take place as a mass protest demanding President Cyril Ramaphosa’s resignation and an end to load shedding.
Before the National Shutdown started, the EFF’s leader, Commander-in-Chief Julius Malema, had promised the people that it was the right time to protest. Some social media accounts with profile pictures of people allegedly affiliated with and wearing EFF regalia threatened violence and disruption on the day of the protest. The last mass protests that occurred in South Africa followed the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma in 2021, with police and security authorities appearing to be unprepared. The protests led to significant destruction and death in the major cities of Durban and Johannesburg. Before this mass protest, the security cluster of South Africa, which includes the South African Police Service (SAPS) and South African National Defense Force (SANDF), signaled that they would be prepared.
President Ramaphosa authorized the deployment of 3,474 SANDF members to assist the police until April 17th. The deployment of the SANDF and a large number of police officers was described by the public as a violent tactic that was similar to those used by dictatorships and the Apartheid regime.
Groups of EFF supporters began gathering in small groups in different locations and cities around South Africa on Sunday, March 19th. They were dressed in their red party regalia, singing songs, and waving placards. There was a notable buzz on social media as it was clear the mass protest was gearing up. As the clock approached midnight, footage on Twitter showed people marching in East London, in the Eastern Cape, and in Braamfontein, Johannesburg.
The footage from Braamfontein showed a group of young protesters standing on the street when they were approached by police officers who fired shots at them, even though the video showed they had their hands raised. The group scattered, with many of them running into hiding spots while others were seen thrown into police vehicles, apparently under arrest.
South African media houses showed the state of events across the country as the day continued. While groups of people were protesting across South Africa, it was far from the expected mass protest with large numbers of people marching, chanting, and preventing daily activity. There was minimal protest action in most areas but the expected protest led to minimum daily activity. Employees did not report for work with minimal vehicle activity and traffic on the roads. Busses and taxis, which are the most used modes of transport, were not operating as normal, with some of them reportedly traveling on their routes while empty.
While opponents of the EFF have called the National Shutdown a failure, the political party’s leader stuck to his convictions. Malema addressed a crowd of people in Church Square in South Africa’s capital city, Pretoria.
“Today, we have an appointment with the streets. Comrades, this is the most successful shutdown in the history of South Africa,” Malema said to the crowd. “The biggest economy in Africa is closed, and Sandton is closed because of the mighty EFF.”
“We are not scared, comrades; you have done so well, we are going to do well whether the enemy likes it or not,” he added. “We are going to do this in a dignified manner.”
Malema insisted that the day was not for speeches as he, along with leaders from other political organizations such as the African Transformation Movement’s Vuyolwethu Zungula and Carl Niehaus, formerly of the African National Congress (ANC) but now leader of the Radical Economic Transformation Movement, started a procession toward the Union Buildings, where the government sits.
Groups of protestors slowly grew in each of South Africa’s big cities throughout the day.
The EFF’s Deputy President, Floyd Shivambu, led the march in Sandton, the wealthiest district in Africa. He reiterated the call for Ramaphosa’s resignation. “Ramaphosa must be removed from office so that we can have a proper government,” he said.
The ANC, which is South Africa’s governing party, released a statement thanking South Africans who did not take part in what it labeled an “extremist, regressive shutdown.” The ANC statement said, “In South Africa, there is no place or tolerance for vigilantism and forceful removal of an incumbent government. The ANC is fully committed to doing what the people of South Africa expect, demand, and deserve. The ANC acknowledges that everyone has the right to protest, and in line with the rule of law, all protest actions must be lawful. According to the Bill of Rights enshrined in our Constitution, no person or grouping may engage in an illegal protest action or impose their protest action on everyone who does not support it.”
While 87 people had reportedly been arrested and there were sporadic reports of violence, the protest did not result in major instances of looting, destruction, and death.