South Africa has deployed troops to assist the country’s embattled police force as unrest and violence spread following the imprisonment last week of Jacob Zuma, the former president, for contempt of court.
At least four people have been killed and hundreds arrested in recent days. After a weekend of looting and rioting, police struggled to contain the increasing violence in cities such as Durban and Johannesburg on Monday. Protesters have blocked main roads and trucks have been set on fire.
The commitment “provides safety and a safe work environment for members of the” [police] and other law enforcement agencies as they carry out their constitutionally mandated law and order duties,” the South African Armed Forces said in a statement on Monday. Troops were used to enforce the first coronavirus lockdown, but they are rare to be deployed in response to unrest. It is not clear how many troops will be sent to the worst-hit provinces of Gauteng, the economic center of the country, and KwaZulu-Natal, where Zuma began his sentence on Thursday.
Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison after defying a corruption investigation during his nine-year rule. Zuma’s lawyers made a last-ditch effort on Monday to persuade the constitutional court to withdraw his sentence on the grounds that the 79-year-old is too weak to survive prison. Legal experts say the attempt is unlikely to succeed.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who succeeded Zuma in 2018 and has sought to fight endemic corruption, condemned the “sporadic but increasingly violent protests” on Sunday. Ramaphosa promised that “we will not tolerate acts of crime”, but the riots continued overnight.
“While there are people who may be hurt and angry right now, there can never be any justification for such violent, destructive and disruptive actions,” Ramaphosa said on Sunday.
Zuma was jailed on orders from South Africa’s constitutional court, which last month found him guilty of resisting his refusal to answer charges of systematic corruption during his presidency. The verdict was hailed as a victory for the rule of law in Africa’s most industrialized country, after Zuma repeatedly attacked courts and predicted a popular uprising against judges. Zuma denies all allegations.
The violence and anger of his supporters have exposed tensions in the ruling African National Congress, with many looters invoking Zuma’s name in online images. “It is a concern for all South Africans that some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilization,” Ramaphosa added, a veiled reference to attempts to fuel the Zulus’ nationalist anger over Zuma’s capture.
South Africa’s national joint operational and intelligence structure, a body that coordinates law enforcement agencies, said on Sunday that hundreds of people had barricaded a main road and attacked police in Johannesburg in “opportunistic crime stemming from violent protests”. In KwaZulu-Natal’s largest city, Durban, gunshots rang out and courts were forced to close on Monday, while a shopping center in the provincial capital of Pietermaritzburg was set on fire.
Zuma’s foundation described the unrest last week as the “reactive, righteous anger of the people”. . . which others have characterized as violence”. The disturbances were in response to the “violent provocation” of Zuma’s jail term, it added.
KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s power base, has a long history of political violence, including murders and truck fires. South Africa’s high levels of inequality and poverty also mean protests could lead to looting, analysts say.
South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said Ramaphosa “should have recognized the ANC’s role in this crisis as this is essentially their internal war being waged on our streets”.