What is happening in South Africa? Riots after Jacob Zuma’s arrest

A military tank patrols near a shopping centre that was damaged after several days of looting following the imprisonment of former South Africa President Jacob Zuma (REUTERS)
A military tank patrols near a shopping centre that was damaged after several days of looting following the imprisonment of former South Africa President Jacob Zuma (REUTERS)


Protests over jailing of former leader spiral into unrest and looting amid a record Covid-19 outbreak

The arrest of former South African President Jacob Zuma this month has triggered looting and violence in the country’s two most populous provinces amid a record wave of Covid-19 infections. Current President Cyril Ramaphosa said the unrest was the result of an orchestrated campaign to start an insurrection against South Africa’s constitutional order.

Why was Jacob Zuma arrested?

Mr Zuma was president of South Africa from 2009 until 2018, a time when alleged corruption escalated in government and the ruling African National Congress. After he resigned, a government-mandated commission started investigating some of these allegations, but Mr. Zuma repeatedly refused to testify, despite an order to do so from South Africa’s Constitutional Court. On June 29, the same court sentenced Mr. Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, and he was subsequently arrested. He has denied wrongdoing. Sporadic protests against his arrest turned into broader violence and looting, much of which didn’t appear to be linked to political motives.

How widespread is the unrest in South Africa?

Most of the rioting and looting has been concentrated in Mr. Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, where South Africa’s economic capital Johannesburg and political capital Pretoria are located. Mobs have targeted shopping malls, factories and warehouses, many of them in impoverished townships, where residents have been hit hard by three brutal waves of Covid-19 infections and government-imposed lockdowns. Some residents formed vigilante groups to protect their communities.

At least 212 people have died in the unrest, including some in shopping-center stampedes, and more than 2,500 have been arrested across the two provinces. Mr. Ramaphosa said that the looting was “used as a smokescreen to carry out economic sabotage," including through targeted attacks on trucks, factories and critical infrastructure, that were part of an attempt to dislodge South Africa’s democracy.

Calm has returned to much of Gauteng, and residents from other provinces were sending food and other essentials to KwaZulu-Natal, where some communities have been cut off from supplies through roadblocks and insecurity. Thousands of volunteers helped clean up littered streets and destroyed shopping centers to begin repairing some of the damage.

But the situation in parts of KwaZulu-Natal remained tense with nearly 1,500 new incidents reported in the night to July 16.

How has President Ramaphosa responded?

Mr. Ramaphosa on July 12 deployed South Africa’s army to back up overwhelmed police and other law-enforcement agencies, including in provinces not hit by the unrest.

Since the start of the unrest, Mr. Ramaphosa has avoided calling out Mr. Zuma or his supporters by name, but he said the violence was instigated and that the government wouldn’t allow anarchy and mayhem to prevail. “It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy," he said in his third address to the nation within less than a week on July 16. “Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection."

Government officials have said their investigations are focused on 12 alleged instigators, and that one of them has been arrested, but declined to provide names of any suspects.

Mr. Zuma’s arrest was initially seen as a victory for his successor, Mr. Ramaphosa, who has pledged to clean up South Africa’s government and the ruling ANC. But the escalating unrest has also drawn attention to continued factional fighting within the former liberation movement, where Mr. Zuma still commands support.

Is there a link between the unrest and the pandemic?

South Africa has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. It is currently in the middle of a third wave of Covid-19 infections, which has already surpassed the country’s two previous waves. Only around 2.5% of its 60 million people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, so many are continuing to get sick and die. Government lockdowns that were supposed to stem transmission of the virus pushed the economy into its deepest recession on record last year, leading to increased hunger and poverty, and driving up an unemployment rate that stood at 33% at the end of March. Many of the looters say they are stealing to help provide for their families and to put pressure on a government that has failed to provide for them. “Politics was the trigger, but the core issue here is the socioeconomic grievances and frustration with the state," said Ryan Cummings, Director of Signal Risk, a Cape Town-based risk consulting firm.

The unrest has also disrupted Covid-19 testing and vaccination efforts in the two affected provinces, and hospitals and clinics have said that staff shortages due to the insecurity were making it difficult to care for patients. Officials have also warned that the mass gatherings may drive a new surge in infections.

What has been the economic impact of the unrest?

Several major businesses, including South Africa’s largest oil refinery, had to temporarily halt operations because of the insecurity. The highway connecting the important port of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal with Johannesburg—one of South Africa’s busiest transport routes—has reopened after being partly cut off.

The blockages had led to concerns over shortages of food and other essentials, and disrupted exports from some of the country’s agricultural hubs, as well as trade with other African economies as far afield as the Democratic Republic of Congo. The malls, factories, warehouses and smaller businesses targeted in the riots are major employers, especially for poorer and lower-skilled South Africans. Officials have warned that rebuilding the damage could take years.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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