What is happening in South Africa? Riots following the arrest of President Jacob Zuma

The arrest of former South African President Jacob Zuma earlier this month sparked looting and violence in the country’s two most populous provinces amid a record wave of Covid-19 infections.

Why was Jacob Zuma arrested?

Mr Zuma was President of South Africa from 2009 to 2018, at a time when alleged corruption in the government and the ruling African National Congress escalated. After he resigned, a government commissioned investigations into some of these allegations began, but Mr. Zuma repeatedly refused to testify despite orders from the South African Constitutional Court. On June 29, the same court sentenced Mr. Zuma to 15 months in prison for disobeying the court and was arrested the following week.

How widespread is the unrest in South Africa?

Most of the violence and looting has been concentrated in Mr. Zuma’s home provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which is home to South Africa’s economic capital Johannesburg and the political capital Pretoria. Mobs have targeted shopping malls, factories and warehouses, many in impoverished townships where residents have been hard hit by three brutal waves of Covid-19 infections and government-imposed lockdowns. Dozens of people lost their lives. Traffic on the motorway that connects the important port of Durban with Johannesburg – one of the busiest traffic routes in South Africa – has also been interrupted. This has raised concerns about food and other essentials shortages and could disrupt exports from some of the country’s agricultural centers and trade with other African economies, all the way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Relative calm returned to Johannesburg on Thursday, and Police Minister Bheki Cele said the expansion of the military operation would help resolve the still unstable situation in KwaZulu-Natal. Some locals have set up vigilante groups to protect their communities. Thousands of South African volunteers returned to the littered streets and shattered shopping malls to begin cleaning up the damage.

South Africa is facing unrest on a scale rarely seen since the end of white minority rule in 1994. For example, one political event exposed deep-seated inequalities that increased during the pandemic. Photo: Marco Longari / AFP / Getty Images

How did President Cyril Ramaphosa react?

The arrest of Mr Zuma was initially seen as a victory for his successor, Ramaphosa, who has promised to purge the South African government and the ruling ANC. But the escalating unrest has also drawn attention to ongoing factional struggles within the former liberation movement, in which Mr Zuma still receives support. On Monday, Mr Ramaphosa deployed the army to assist the overwhelmed police and other law enforcement agencies, and on Thursday he called in all military reservists to silence the riots that have fueled fears of food and other shortages. He has urged South Africans not to join the violence and looting which he believes will continue to damage the economy and delay recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Is there a connection between the unrest and the coronavirus 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 that has already surpassed the country’s two previous waves. Only about 2.5% of the 60 million people are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, so many continue to get sick and die. Government lockdowns designed to curb transmission of the virus drove the economy into the deepest recession ever last year, leading to increased hunger and poverty and boosting an unemployment rate of 33% in late March. Many of the looters say they are stealing to provide for their families and to put pressure on a government that has failed to provide for them. “Politics was the trigger, but the key issue here is socio-economic grievances and frustration with the state,” said Ryan Cummings, director of Signal Risk, a Cape Town-based risk advisory firm.

A police officer guarded a group of alleged looters in a shopping mall in Johannesburg on Tuesday.


James Oatway / Getty Images

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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