The arrest of former South African President Jacob Zuma this month has ignited cases of violence and looting in the two most populous provinces in the country, while there is a wave of contagion in Corona. The current president, Cyril Rampoza, said the unrest was the result of an orchestrated campaign to start a revolt against the constitutional order in South Africa.
Why was Jacob Zuma arrested?
Zuma was president of South Africa from 2009 to 2018, a period in which corruption in government ministries and the African National Congress soared. After resigning, a government-appointed committee began investigating some of the allegations, but Zuma repeatedly refused to testify, despite an order to do so from the South African Constitutional Court.
On June 29, the court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, and he was subsequently arrested. Zuma denied committing any crime. Local anti-arrest demonstrations turned into a wider wave of violence and looting, which for the most part seemed unrelated to political motives.
How widespread are the demonstrations in South Africa?
Most of the riots and looting were concentrated in the home districts of Zuma KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, where the economic capital of Africa Johannesburg and the political capital Pretoria are located. Gangs were furious at the malls, factories and warehouses, most of them in impoverished towns, where residents were badly affected by the waves of infections in Corona and the closures imposed by the government. Some residents have formed Civil Guard groups to protect their communities.
At least 212 people were killed in the riots, including some who were trampled to death as people fled malls, and more than 2,500 people were arrested in two counties. Rampoza said the looting cases “served as a smokescreen for economic sabotage,” including targeted attacks on trucks, factories and vital infrastructure, which were part of an effort to undermine South Africa’s democracy.
Silence returned to most of Gauteng, and residents of other districts sent food and other essential products to KwaZulu-Natal, a district where some communities are cut off from supply lines due to instability and roadblocks. Thousands of volunteers helped clear the filthy streets and ruined shopping centers to begin repairing some of the damage.
But the situation in parts of KwaZulu-Natal remains strained with nearly 1,500 new cases reported on the nights of July 16.
How did President Ramposa react?
On July 12, President Rampoza ordered the South African military to back up the police and other law enforcement agencies involved in the demonstrations, including in districts where there were no demonstrations.
From the beginning of the riots, Rampoza refrained from calling Zuma and his supporters by name, but said the violence had been deliberately ignited and the government would not allow anarchy and chaos to prevail. “It is now clear that last week’s events were nothing more than a coordinated and planned attack on our democracy,” he said in his third speech to the nation in less than a week, on July 16. “Using the pretext of political excuse, those who initiated these acts tried to ignite a popular uprising.”
Government officials said their investigations focused on 12 possible instigators, one of whom had already been arrested, but declined to reveal the names of the suspects.
Zuma’s arrest was initially seen as a victory for his successor Rampoza, who promised to clean up the South African government and the National Congress of Africa that controls it. But the escalation in violence has drawn attention to the internal conflicts within the former liberation movement, where Zuma still enjoys support.
Is there a connection between the unrest and the plague?
South Africa was hit hard by the corona plague. The country is now in the midst of a third wave of infections, which has already surpassed the previous two waves in severity. Only about 2.5% of the population, numbering about 60 million, have been completely vaccinated against corona, and many are still sick and dead.
Closures imposed by the government, which were supposed to slow the spread of the virus, pushed the economy into the worst recession ever last year, leading to an increase in hunger and poverty and rising 33% at the end of March.
Many of the looters say they are stealing to help their families and pressure the government that failed to help them. “Politics has been the trigger for this, but the core issues here are socio-economic injustices and frustration with the state,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, a Cape Town-based risk management company.
The unrest also hampered corona testing and vaccination efforts in the two affected districts, and hospitals and clinics said the manpower shortage due to instability makes it difficult to treat patients. Senior officials also warned that large gatherings could lead to a further increase in infections.
What was the economic impact of the unrest?
Several large companies, including South Africa’s largest oil distillery, have been forced to suspend operations due to instability. The highway connecting the important port city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg – one of the busiest transport routes in South Africa – reopened after being partially blocked.
The checkpoints raised concerns about food shortages and other basic commodities, and hampered exports from some of the country’s agricultural centers, as well as trade with African economies in remote places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Malls, factories, warehouses and small companies affected by the riots are big employers, especially among poorer and less skilled South Africans. Senior government officials have warned that repairing the damage could take years.
Aisha Dedi Patel participated in the preparation of the article.