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

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

Why was Jacob Zuma arrested?

Mr Zuma was President of South Africa from 2009 to 2018, a time when alleged corruption escalated within the government and the ruling African National Congress. After his resignation, a government-mandated commission began investigating some of the allegations, but Zuma has repeatedly refused to testify, despite an order from the Constitutional Court of South Africa. On June 29, the same court sentenced Mr. Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, and he was subsequently arrested. He denied any wrongdoing. Sporadic protests against his arrest turned into wider violence and looting, much of which appeared to be unrelated to political motives.

How widespread is the unrest in South Africa?

Most of the riots and looting have 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. Crowds have targeted shopping malls, factories and warehouses, many in impoverished townships, where residents have been hit hard by three brutal waves of Covid-19 infections and government-imposed closures. Some residents have formed vigilante groups to protect their communities.

South Africa faces unrest on a scale rarely seen since the end of white minority rule in 1994. Here’s how a political event revealed deep inequalities that grew during the pandemic. Photo: Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

At least 212 people have died in the unrest, some in the rush of shopping malls, and more than 2,500 have been arrested in the two provinces. Mr Ramaphosa said the looting was “used as a smokescreen to carry out economic sabotage”, including through targeted attacks on trucks, factories and critical infrastructure, which were part of the system. an attempt to dislodge South African democracy.

Calm returned to much of Gauteng, and residents of other provinces were sending food and other essentials to KwaZulu-Natal, where some communities were cut off from supplies due to roadblocks and insecurity. Thousands of volunteers helped clean up trash-strewn streets and destroyed shopping malls to start repairing some of the damage.

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

How did President Ramaphosa react?

On July 12, Mr. Ramaphosa deployed the South African military to support overwhelmed police and other law enforcement agencies, including in provinces unaffected by the unrest.

Since the unrest began, Mr Ramaphosa has avoided calling Mr Zuma or his supporters by name, but said violence was provoked and the government would not allow lawlessness and chaos to reign. “It is now clear 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 in less than one week on July 16. under the pretext of a political grievance, the perpetrators of these acts sought to provoke a popular uprising.

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

Mr Zuma’s arrest was initially seen as a victory for his successor, Mr Ramaphosa, who pledged to cleanse the South African government and the ruling ANC. But the escalating unrest has also drawn attention to the continuing factional fighting within the former liberation movement, where Zuma continues to enjoy 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 midst of a third wave of Covid-19 infections, which has already overtaken the country’s two previous waves. Only about 2.5% of its 60 million people have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, so many continue to fall ill and die. Government lockdowns that were supposed to stem the transmission of the virus pushed the economy into its deepest recession on record last year, leading to increased hunger and poverty, and pushing up an unemployment rate that climbed. rose to 33% at the end of March. Many looters say they steal to help support their families and to pressure a government that has failed to provide for them. “Politics was the trigger, but the central issue here is socio-economic grievances and frustration with the state,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, a Cape Town-based risk consultancy.

A policeman was guarding a group of suspected looters at a Johannesburg shopping center.


James Oatway / Getty Images

The unrest also disrupted Covid-19 screening and vaccination efforts in the two affected provinces, and hospitals and clinics said staff shortages due to insecurity made it difficult to care for patients. Authorities have also warned that the mass gatherings could lead to a new wave of infections.

What was the economic impact of the unrest?

Several large companies, including South Africa’s largest oil refinery, have had to temporarily suspend operations due to insecurity. The highway connecting the important port of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg, one of South Africa’s busiest transport routes, has reopened after being partially cut.

The lockdowns had raised 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 away as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Congo. Shopping malls, factories, warehouses and small businesses targeted by the riots are major employers, especially for poorer and less skilled South Africans. Authorities have warned that rebuilding the damage could take years.

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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