The South African army was deployed on Monday after deadly riots broke out, in which at least 45 people have died, in the country’s provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the latter of which contains the nation’s largest city Johannesburg.
Riots broke out after former President Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for defying a court order to testify before a state-sponsored inquiry into allegations of corruption during his nine-year tenure as President from 2009 to 2018. The unrest began last week in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal but has since spread to neighbouring provinces.
After struggling to contain violence in large cities, including Durban and Johannesburg, the police have reached their breaking point and requested military assistance. Witnesses reported multiple instances of firearms use, opportunistic looting, and roads being blocked by burning tires.
Thousands of businesses and shops have also been looted, forcing many owners to restart their livelihoods entirely from scratch at a time when South Africa’s economy is still struggling from the impact of COVID-19 and is in lockdown after a surge of the Delta-variant.
One South African resident from Cape Town told Concourse about the despair and frustration he felt regarding the ongoing riots: “It is all nonsense. There’s no reason for us to go into such turmoil over something so trivial due to someone [Zuma] that cares little about this nation… a man that screwed the whole nation for close to a decade and went unpunished… it’s a waste of energy, it’s a waste of time, it’s a waste of government money”, and “…ultimately, it is just malarkey.”
The N3 Highway, linking Durban with Johannesburg, was blocked for several hours and more than twenty trucks were left burning 100 miles north of Durban. Shopping malls, businesses, and vaccination centres across the country have closed due to security concerns. Police have also warned Zuma supporters and looters against using social media to instigate violence.
Cape Town has tightened security over fears that the rioting may spread. There have been reports of limited localised looting but Western Cape premier Alan Winde assured residents that “isolated attempts” of looting were “brought under control by law enforcement.”
The country’s president Cyril Ramaphosa has urged calm and vowed that the police and army would restore order. However, he is now in a difficult position. What was initially a landmark victory for him – ousting Zuma and overseeing the first conviction of a former president in post-Apartheid South Africa – has now unsettled South Africa and caused the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party to become embroiled in divisive internal political fights between factions that support Zuma and factions that support Ramaphosa.
The Zuma camp maintain that the former president was framed for his crimes and treated unjustly. They called for civil disobedience and defiance of party authority, which has been particularly problematic for Ramaphosa’s government as they are currently being tested not only by the ongoing riots but also by significant unemployment, coronavirus infections, subpar provision of water and electricity, and a lack of business confidence in South Africa.
Earlier this year, Zuma was charged with bribery, fraud, racketeering, and money laundering in relation to a £2bn deal to buy European military equipment for the South African armed forces in 1999, when he was deputy president. He also faced a separate corruption charge for accepting 500,000 rand (£260,000) yearly from French multinational company Thales, reportedly in exchange for protecting the company against an investigation into the deal. The ex-president is now trying to appeal his sentence, which the nation’s highest court, the Constitutional Court of South Africa, will review starting on Monday.