This working paper forms part of MISTRA’s priority research project, The underpinnings of protest in South Africa: Origins and effects, that critically analyses the underpinnings of protest in South Africa and the variety of factors that generate protest action. The research aims to locate protest and civil unrest in a broader systemic context of rising inequalities and popular dissent globally, by understanding how political, socio-economic and environmental factors, identifiable in other international contexts, transitional societies and new democracies, manifest in ways that speak to South Africa’s own history, dynamics and lived realities, as well as to longer-term protest trends.

This chapter examines the protests in July 2021, in which over 340 people lost their lives and infrastructure and businesses were destroyed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, in particular as a continuation of a deepening protest trend. However, the chapter uncovers, in contrast to the broader experience of popular protest, that July 2021 protests differed in significant ways. This includes the scale and intensity of the unrest; the apparent fore-planning and coordination by politically-motivated actors; the unusually high levels of destruction and criminality (including arson and looting) that accompanied many of the actions; and the unusual trigger of the events – the arrest of a former South African president.