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


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.

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 South Africa’s Constitutional Court orders to do so. On June 29, the same court sentenced Mr. Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court and he was arrested the following week.

How big are the riots in South Africa?

Most of the violence 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. 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. Dozens of people lost their lives. Traffic on the highway connecting the important port of Durban to Johannesburg, one of South Africa‘s busiest transport routes, has also been halted. This has raised concerns about shortages of food and other essentials and could disrupt exports from some of the country’s agricultural centers and trade with other African economies as far away as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Relative calm returned to Johannesburg on Thursday and Police Minister Bheki Cele said the expansion of the military deployment would help resolve the still volatile situation in KwaZulu-Natal. Some residents have formed vigilante groups to protect their communities. Thousands of South African volunteers returned to the litter-strewn streets and destroyed shopping malls to start cleaning up the mess.

South Africa faces unrest on a scale rarely seen since the end of the 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

How did President Cyril Ramaphosa react?

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. On Monday, Mr Ramaphosa deployed the military to support the overwhelmed police and other law enforcement agencies, and on Thursday he called all military reservists in a bid to muzzle riots that have fueled fears of food shortages and others. He called on South Africans not to join in the violence and looting, which he says will further damage the economy and delay recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

Is there a link between the unrest and the coronavirus 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 a rising unemployment rate. at 33% at the end of March. Many looters say they steal to help support their families and to put pressure on 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 police officer was guarding a group of suspected looters at a Johannesburg shopping center on Tuesday.


James Oatway / Getty Images

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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