Many South Africans stayed home from work Monday after the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party called for a nationwide shutdown to protest frequent power cuts and high unemployment.
The highly anticipated demonstration ended Monday with small and isolated incidents of public violence and the arrest of at least 550 people across the country.
The party’s leader, Julius Malema, had called for businesses to close and people to stay home to protest record unemployment and ongoing power cuts. The party also called on President Cyril Ramaphosa to step down immediately.
Although most businesses closed in Johannesburg and Pretoria, some observers questioned whether the protest was a success because it was held on a day many would have taken off anyway, ahead of a Tuesday public holiday.
Piers Pigou, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, said public safety precautions also may have played a role.
“A significant deployment of security forces, the military out in certain areas, and visible policing accentuated it in a way we don’t often see,” Pigou said. “I think this set the parameters for a nation to just err on the side of caution, which is how I feel the day has played out.”
He said protesters mainly operated within the confines of the law during Monday’s event, describing it as a success for a young, fragile democracy.
The largest of the protests occurred in Pretoria, where about 1,000 EFF members gathered. They marched near the presidential guest house, where they were blocked by police before dispersing later.
Gift Bogopane, a 42-year-old father of three, attended the protest.
“We have a lot of complaints, but now the main complaint is the electricity and unemployment, and I don’t know if I must say this, but for the president to step aside to give others a chance,” he said.
The police said the majority of arrests occurred in Gauteng province, followed by the Northern Cape, with people arrested for a number of offenses, including public violence, intimidation and theft.
Ahead of the protests, law enforcement confiscated some 24,000 tires from various locations, saying the tires would have been used to block roads and start fires.
“Law enforcement deployments will continue to monitor the situation closely to ensure the safety and security of everyone in the country,” said police spokesperson Athlenda Mathe.
“Communities are encouraged to continue reporting any wrongdoing and suspicious activities to their nearest police station.”
While the shutdown was mostly peaceful, the EFF has vowed to continue calling for an end to power system loadshedding and for Ramaphosa to step down.