Explainer: How Jacob Zuma’s Arrest triggered Violence, Looting and Death in South Africa

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South Africa is in chaos with troubling pictures of burning buildings and looted shops hitting the internet following the jailing of former South African president Jacob Zuma. So far, at least 30 people have been killed during the unrest.

How did it start?

In 2018, a government-appointed commission called National Prosecuting Authority reinstated corruption charges against Zuma. The former president was charged with 16 criminal charges of fraud, racketeering, and money laundering.

Over the course of two years, Zuma appeared in court a few times until he stopped showing up. His continuous refusal to appear in court found him in contempt of court and sentenced to a 15 months sentence on June 29, 2021. With this, he became the first president in 27 years since the end of apartheid to receive a prison sentence.

On July 7, 2021, the 79-year-old surrendered himself to the authorities and officially begun serving his 15-month prison sentence at Estcourt Correctional Centre. Two days later, his bid to challenge his detention on grounds of health and risk of catching Covid-19 was dismissed by the Pietermaritzburg High Court.

Violence breaks out in South Africa

Zuma’s arrest had supporters taking to the streets with their protest tagged “Free Jacob Zuma and shut down KZN.” Like the former president, his core supporters believe that he is a victim of a witch hunt by political opponents.

The protest turned violent on Sunday evening of Sunday, July 11, 2021, in the KwaZulu-Natal province with gunshots and explosions reportedly heard at local malls and residential areas. Overnight, shops were looted and the protesters armed with heavy sticks and firearms took over highways with burning barricades.

By the next day, the violence had escalated throughout KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Durban, and Johannesburg, the country’s commercial hub. Looters targeted malls, stores selling alcohol, clothes, and electronics. Pharmacies offering free medicine were also affected.

A damaged KFC restaurant. Photo Credit: Themba Hadebe/Associated Press

South Africa’s economy, already weakened by the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, is taking a huge hit. Several companies, malls, shops, government buildings, and petrol stations have been forced to stop operating. Bloomberg reports that the country’s biggest banks have closed their branches in the two affected provinces. There are also concerns about food shortages.

Commenting on the economic implications of the ongoing unrest, Business Unity SA (BUSA) chief executive officer, Cas Coovadia said, “The anarchy has caused significant economic damage and cost and the ongoing violence and destruction of property continue to cause severe losses to the economy.”

He added, “These events are being reported on globally, resulting in significant loss of confidence in our country as an investment destination, at a time we are competing with more positive destinations in different parts of the world.”

As of today, July 13th, South Africa’s army has been called to help police who have been unable to stop the growing chaos that has cost six lives in the Gauteng province, and 26 in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

2,500 soldiers have been deployed to support the South African police. Photo Credit: The Associated Press.

The current president Cyril Ramaphosa has addressed the riots urging the protesters to “stand against violence” as the victims are the innocent people who have done nothing wrong.

In his address, which aired yesterday, he said, “What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft. We will not hesitate to arrest and prosecute those who perpetrate these actions and will ensure that they face the full might of our law.”

800 suspected protesters and looters have been arrested with the National Prosecuting Authority warning that anyone found guilty of looting would be punished.

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