Protests against the imprisonment of former President Zuma have dramatically turned to full-blown deadly unrest, unleashing looting and arson in multiple cities.

In light of widespread public violence that has been “rarely seen" in the history of South Africa's, President Cyril Ramaphosa has deployed the military in a bid to quell escalating unrest that has so far killed dozens of people and caused damage worth millions of dollars to the businesses already hit by the pandemic. 

For President Ramaphosa, the deadly unrest is unprecedented in post-apartheid South Africa. The South African soldiers went on to the streets of the two most densely populated provinces of Gauteng, which houses the country's economic hub Johannesburg and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), the Zulu tribal homeland. 

As of Tuesday, 45 people were killed in total as the toll in KZN stands at 26. More than 750 people have been arrested, with most of the arrests taking place in Johannesburg.

The officials on Tuesday said that 10 bodies were found at a looted shopping centre in Soweto town of Johannesburg. The victims had apparently died during a stampede. 

Meanwhile, some Covid-19 vaccination sites and clinics in Gauteng and KZN were shuttered due to safety concerns. The Gauteng provincial government and an independent pharmacy association warn of further delaying a sluggish immunisation campaign.

A member of the South African Police Services (SAPS) searches for looters inside the Gold Spot Shopping Centre in Vosloorus, southeast of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021.
A member of the South African Police Services (SAPS) searches for looters inside the Gold Spot Shopping Centre in Vosloorus, southeast of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021. (AFP)

Initially, the protests began last Friday in support of former President Jacob Zuma after he handed himself over to begin serving a 15-month jail sentence.

But the unrest has quickly taken over the protests and unleashed looting and arson in multiple cities.

It first began with protesters blocking roads and burning trucks and intensified across KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma’s home region. In its capital, Pietermaritzburg smoke billowed from the roof of a large shopping mall. Banks, shops and fuel stations in the city were shut. 

Then, unrest spread to the country’s largest city and centre of industry Johannesburg where businesses were ransacked, shopping malls were looted and burned. A police helicopter hovered over the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto, where looters casually made off with giant TV sets, microwave ovens, clothes and linen, for hours.  

"What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft," President Ramaphosa said in a late evening address for a second straight night on Monday.

Reflecting deeper problems

But the magnitude of the destruction, rather than the anger over Zuma’s imprisonment, reflects the levels of hardship in the country hit by catastrophic unemployment and a toughening of anti-Covid restrictions. 

The continent’s most industrialised economy has long suffered from extremely high levels of unemployment, trapping millions in poverty and contributing to stark inequalities that persist nearly three decades after the end of Apartheid in 1994.

And the pandemic-related restrictions have exacerbated poverty and highlighted sharp inequalities. 

The country’s statistics agency last month recorded the highest quarterly labour force survey since it began in 2008. According to Statistics South Africa, the unemployment rate rose to a new record high of 32.6 percent in the first quarter of 2021. 

However, the rate among youth is staggering as almost one in every two young people in the labour force did not have a job in the first quarter of 2021. 

Rioters loot the Jabulani Mall in the Soweto district of Johannesburg on July 12, 2021.
Rioters loot the Jabulani Mall in the Soweto district of Johannesburg on July 12, 2021. (AFP)

The country, the worst hit on the African continent in terms of recorded cases and deaths, is in the grip of the third wave of infections driven by the more infectious Delta coronavirus variant. With the rising infection and slow vaccination, Ramaphosa moved the country to the fourth level of a five-tier restriction scale in late June, promising to review the restrictions after two weeks.

But South Africa extended tight Covid-19 rules last Sunday for another 14 days, maintaining restrictions that include a ban on gatherings, a curfew from 9 pm to 4 am and a prohibition on the sale of alcohol.

However, the looting was expected for Eldrin Naidoo who is a young restaurateur in Johannesburg. 

"We knew, when we locked down again, this was bound to happen, because the longer you leave people hungry, these events would take place. I think people are genuinely hungry and they need some type of income”, Naidoo said. 

Nonetheless, the looting and violence, entrepreneur Tumelo Mosetlhi says, will bring nothing but more suffering for people.  

"To see people's shops and businesses being gutted - yes, people are hungry today, but tomorrow there will be more unemployment, more pain, more suffering in a nation that is trying to recover and rebuild itself", Mosetlhi said. 

Former South African president Jacob Zuma addresses the media in his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal on July 4, 2021.
Former South African president Jacob Zuma addresses the media in his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal on July 4, 2021. (AFP)

Zuma’s future

Amid violence, 79-year-old former President Zuma is hoping to get clean and walk free from the jail. 

Zuma was sentenced late last month for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018. He is hoping to get the sentence scrapped or reduced but that possibility is seen as slim.

The Constitutional Court sat for 10 hours on Monday hearing from Zuma's lawyers asking the court to review its ruling. But the court reserved its judgement to a later, but unspecified date.

Nonetheless, the decision to jail a former president is seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa's ability to enforce the rule of law, including against powerful politicians.

As a former anti-apartheid fighter, Zuma spent 10 years in jail in the notorious Robben Island jail off Cape Town.

He rose in democratic South Africa to vice president and then president, before being ousted by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2018 as graft scandals proliferated.

But he remains popular among many poor South Africans, especially grassroots members of the ANC, who portray him as a defender of the disadvantaged, despite the corruption scandals.

The corruption inquiry with which Zuma has refused to cooperate is examining allegations that he allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and peddle influence over government policy. He and the Gupta brothers, who fled the country after his ouster, deny wrongdoing.

Zuma also faces a corruption case relating to a $2 billion arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president. He denies the charges in that case.