Arrest And Unrest: The South African Saga

South Africa is crippled by violence and lootings due to the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on June 29. The riots have caused various economical as well as infrastructural losses, majorly in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Although the unrest has not been politically motivated, the current South African President claims that the violence was instigated and coordinated.

The arrest: Jacob Zuma became the President of South Africa in the year 2009 and continued his term for a period of nine years, until his forced resignation in 2018. Zuma was charged with alleged corruption in 2018, which turned the ruling African National Congress (ANC) against him. A government-mandated probe was launched against the allegations, by the Zondo Commission, which was chaired by deputy chief justice Raymond Zondo. Meanwhile, Zuma had defied the orders of South Africa’s Constitutional Court repeatedly, by refusing to testify against the allegations. In response, the apex court had sentenced the former South African President for 15 months in prison on the charges of contempt of court, on June 29. Zuma was then subsequently arrested. 

The Constitutional Court holds that there can be no doubt that Mr. Zuma is in contempt of court. Mr. Zuma was served with the order and it is impossible to conclude anything other than that he was unequivocally aware of what it required of him,” said acting chief justice Sisi Khampepe.

Mr. Zuma has repeatedly reiterated that he would rather be imprisoned than to cooperate with the commission or comply with the order made,” said Khampepe.

Legal woes: It’s not the first time that the former PM had encountered a legal glitch. Zuma had been associated with various criminal activities earlier too. In 2005, the former president was charged with raping a family friend, for which he was acquitted in 2006. In the same year, Zuma was also charged with corruption over a multi-billion dollar arms deal, which was subsequently dropped when he started campaigning for the presidential elections in 2009. In 2016, Zuma was charged with 18 counts of corruption. Although Zuma appealed to the Court but lost a bid to overturn them in 2017. South Africa’s Apex Court had also ruled that Zuma had used government money to upgrade his private home in Nkandla, however, he had repaid the money. Public prosecutor, Mokotedi Mpshe in 2017 had requested for a judge-led investigation into the former president’s extortions, through his relationship with the wealthy Gupta family. Zuma, along with the Guptas, has denied all allegations. The National Prosecuting Authority had confirmed Zuma’s involvement in fraud, racketeering, corruption, and money laundering, relating to the arms deal, which he denied. In the same year, Zuma had also approved of the inquiry into claims of state looting.

Popularity: Keeping his criminal record aside, Jacob Zuma had always been viewed as a ‘man of the people’ during his nine-year tenure as the President. Zuma had been vocal about demanding dignity for the poor and uneducated citizens, which constitutes the majority of the South African population who had remained impoverished under the democratic rule.

Zuma was also the first Zulu President of South Africa, which gave him an upper hand among his counterparts, in terms of connecting with the majority of the nation’s population.

Hence, many people saw Zuma’s arrest as a direct attack on South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu. His supporters, who are mostly young and economically disadvantaged, have been angered by the government’s attempt to jail a politician who stood by the people of the nation.

Although South Africa’s middle and upper classes have become somewhat more racially diverse, still economic disparity, observed mostly among the black population, forms the crux of the civil unrest that followed Zuma’s arrest.

One Zuma supporter clarified about the protests saying: “For our people, this is not lawlessness. … It is survival, and survival at all cost.”

The unrest: A day after Zuma’s arrest, protests broke out in South Africa, especially in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. These protests had soon escalated into violence and looting.

Zuma supporters also burned tyres and blocked roads in KwaZulu-Natal province. Shopping malls, factories, and warehouses have been the major targets of the mob. 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. 

The persistent violence has increased due to high levels of poverty and unemployment in the nation. The COVID-induced lockdown also had a negative impact on businesses and snatched many people of their livelihoods in a nation with a 32.6% unemployment rate. The pandemic also led the nation into the biggest contraction in a century with the South African economy shrinking to 7% last year. 

Many firms had shut down, owing to the economic crisis, while many others had to cut wages and reduce staff. It is speculated that many protestors have come down to loot stores to better their dire financial circumstances.

“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 citizens have also taken to social media to express their dismay at Zuma’s arrest with #FreeJacobZuma and #ZumaArrest trending on Twitter.


Aftermath: Approximately, More than 200 malls had been looted or destroyed, along with over 600 stores burnt or damaged due to the upheaval. The liquor industry had also been affected with more than 200 liquor shops being looted in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng provinces. Clothing retailer, Mr Price was also forced to temporarily shut hundreds of their stores after being entirely robbed, with some malls also shutting their doors. The Nedbank banking group had also announced the closure of all its branches across South Africa. 

A group of men shouts as they try to enter a shopping mall in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, South Africa on July 14. Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

In the township of Alexandra in Gauteng province, the rioters also broke into the Alex FM radio station in the middle of the night and stole equipment worth 5 million Rand (USD 350,000).

South Africa’s largest oil refinery has also temporarily halted its operations owing to the protests. A survey done by the Small Business Institute (SBI), revealed last year that as many as 55,000 South African SMMEs (small, medium-sized, and micro-enterprises) may not make it through the COVID-19 pandemic. With the unrest, the number was expected to rise, said the SBI Chief Executive John Dludlu.

The violence has also led to concerns over shortages of food and other essentials. The country’s exports from its agricultural hubs, along with other African economies as far afield as the Democratic Republic of Congo have also been disrupted due to the unrest. 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.

The prevalent blockages have also impacted Covid-19 testing and vaccination efforts in the two affected provinces, with the hospitals and clinics experiencing staff shortages due to the insecurity. Officials have also warned that mass gatherings may lead to a surge in infections.

Ramaphosa’s response: Succeeding Zuma, the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was seen as a ray of hope for the ANC, who had been appointed to clear the tarnished image of the ruling party due to allegations on Zuma. But the escalating unrest has also drawn attention to the division in the ANC, where a pro-Zuma faction opposes Ramaphosa. President Ramaphosa has also alleged that the violence and lootings were planned.

It is quite clear that all these incidents of unrest and looting were instigated, there were people who planned it and coordinated it.”

We are going after them, we have identified a good number of them, and we will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country,” Ramaphosa told reporters.

South Africa has deployed more than 20,000 defense personnel to assist police to curtail the unrest. It is considered to be one of the largest troop deployments since the end of white minority rule in 1994, the government said 10,000 soldiers were on the streets on July 15 and the South African National Defence Force has also called up all of its reserve forces of 12,000 soldiers.

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.”

President Ramaphosa has avoided calling out Zuma or his supporters by name but has stated that the violence was instigated and that the government wouldn’t allow anarchy and mayhem to prevail. Ramaphosa also admitting to the pitfalls of his government to contain the unrest.

Government officials have also claimed that their investigations were focused on 12 alleged instigators, and one of them had been arrested, but haven’t revealed any names of the suspects.

The State vs Zuma: Amid the unrest in the country, the long-running corruption trial against Zuma resumed virtually on July 19. The trial addressed 16 charges of fraud, graft, and racketeering related to the 1999 purchase of fighter jets, patrol boats, and military gear from five European arms firms faced by Zuma when he was deputy president.

The hearing saw Zuma claiming the virtual format to be unconstitutional and requested for the postponement of the application of his trial.


The virtual trial is also speculated to reignite tensions that had eased during the time. 

“People will be watching the behavior of judges,” said Sipho Seepe, a fellow of the University of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal.

“If they feel justice is not done, they will protest.”

With recent developments in South Africa, violence has eased in Gauteng, and help has also been extended to the two provinces by the residents from other provinces in terms of food and other essentials. Thousands of volunteers have also helped in cleaning up littered streets and destroyed shopping centers have also begun repairing some of the damage. Although, the situation in some parts of KwaZulu-Natal still remained tense.

South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said that the government is now in control of most of the areas where there has been looting and riots.

There are still pockets of areas, where there continue to be some looting.” 

Local communities have stood their ground to repel any individuals, trying to enter businesses,” Pandor said.

In the majority, it is now quiet. What we need to do is to maintain stability to start the process of rebuilding, she added.

Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), a business lobby group, has also requested the government to impose a 24-hour curfew to quickly contain the unrest. But with the recent trial on July 19, the future of the unrest still seems uncertain.

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