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Is South Africa Headed Toward its Own 'Arab Spring?'

FILE - Former South African President Thabo Mbeki, Cape Town.

Former South African president Thabo Mbeki launched a rare attack last week on the ruling African National Congress party and President Cyril Ramaphosa. Mbeki said public discontent with the government is so high the country could be headed toward its own "Arab Spring," the uprising that toppled leaders starting in 2010 and spread across parts of the Arab world.

In his address at the funeral of an ANC stalwart, Mbeki was unequivocal in his criticism of the party to which he’s dedicated his life, saying there was no national plan to address the poverty, unemployment, and inequality plaguing South Africa and warning that it could lead to violence.

“One of my fears is that one of these days, we’re going to have our own version of the Arab Spring,” said Mbeki.

Independent political analyst Asanda Ngoasheng said she thinks Mbeki’s warning is on target.

“I think that former President Thabo Mbeki is right in his assessment that South Africa is ripe for an Arab Spring," Ngoasheng said. "In fact, I would even take it further and say that South Africa has already had the preemptions and predecessors of revolt.”

Ngoasheng pointed to the riots that broke out after the brief jailing of former president Jacob Zuma last year as one example. She said the COVID-19 pandemic had also exacerbated poverty.

“South Africa has a ticking time bomb of youth unemployment and the combination of the post-Covid world," Ngoasheng said.

But analyst and author Ralph Mathekga said he thought Mbeki’s comparison went a step too far, arguing that even if the ANC lost power it wouldn’t mean the country would fall apart.

“The problem is that the formulation by Mbeki then says if the ANC’s not holding, then South Africa’s going to an Arab Spring, what that means is only the ANC can actually lead politically," Mathekga said.

President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed Mbeki’s criticism that he had failed to create jobs in a speech over the weekend, saying “we should challenge the claim that nothing is being done.”

“While we all agree that our overriding objectives are to grow the economy, create jobs, and reduce poverty and inequality and we must remember that the problem and challenge of jobs did not start yesterday," Ramaphosa said.

Wandile Sihlobo, chief economist of the Agricultural Business Chamber of South Africa, said it’s vital for government to address unemployment and poverty to prevent growing discontent.

“The crux of this is actually making sure we grow the economy,” said Sihlobo.

But will it be a case of too little too late? With youth unemployment at 63 percent, frequent blackouts and failing state services, South Africa could be primed for a repeat of last year’s violence.