Worst Riots Since 90s: How Zuma's Arrest Divided South Africa
© REUTERS / ROGAN WARDA general view of burning trucks after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa, July 14, 2021
© REUTERS / ROGAN WARD
Last week, South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa claimed that the instigators of the violence which recently hit the country had been identified and that the government was "going after them".
With this month's riots in South Africa claiming the lives of at least 337 people, the main question is what is behind this unrest, some of the worst the nation has seen since the 1990s.
The riots kicked off after former South African President Jacob Zuma handed himself in to police on 8 July to serve a 15-month sentence for contempt of court. His supporters reacted angrily to the developments as they blockaded major roads, demanding Zuma's immediate release.
The protests quickly turned into chaos, with businesses in every sector looted, burned, and petrol-bombed in major cities across South Africa, where troops were sent to quell the unrest.
The turmoil specifically hit the province of KwaZulu-Natal, with its Premier Sihle Zikalala calling the situation "a catastrophe".
The premier insisted that the violence in his province "started as a mobilisation around the former president, but then became something uncontrollable".
"It was deliberately started and orchestrated […] and had an element of undermining the state - an insurrection", Zikalala argued without elaborating.
He added that even though "many, many people are very unhappy about [Zuma's] incarceration, […] anyone involved in instigating or planning or supporting disruption must be arrested and prosecuted".
© REUTERS / SIPHIWE EMACOUS MOYO SNRDemonstrators loot the Ayoba Cold Store in Chesterville, Durban
Demonstrators loot the Ayoba Cold Store in Chesterville, Durban
© REUTERS / SIPHIWE EMACOUS MOYO SNR
The violence also rode roughshod over the neighbourhood of Phoenix, where many members of the massive Indian community pointed to racial tensions that they said had been intentionally sparked by those who orchestrated the violence.
"It was like a war zone. It was something orchestrated. Something sinister. These were highly trained guys. They were trying actually to cause a civil war in this country. It was a direct attack - on the Indian community", Marvin Govender of the local residents' association was cited by the BBC as saying. According to him, "communities ended up protecting themselves".
Referring to Zuma supporters' drive to stage the protests, Anthony Kirkwood, a local marketing director, suggested that "it was a way of encouraging communities to become stronger, and from all different countries".
Nkosentsha Shezi, an activist heading a new pressure group to support Zuma's calls for "radical economic transformation", however, pointed to the absence of proof to accuse the former president and his supporters of fuelling the violence.
Shezi insisted that it was black South Africans, affected by systemic poverty, who were the real victims of the riots.
© REUTERS / ROGAN WARDPeople loot an area near a burning warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa, July 14, 2021
People loot an area near a burning warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa, July 14, 2021
© REUTERS / ROGAN WARD
"People are willing to lay down their lives in defence of the ideals that [former] President Jacob Zuma stands for. This is not a war against white people. This is not a war against Indian people. It's about the redress of colonial apartheid. The black majority […] who went to malls and everywhere to loot, are carrying no spears, no guns. In fact, they are the ones who became victims of war, victims of people who are shooting at them in the name of protecting private property", Shezi claimed.
The remarks came after South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the riots some of the worst violence witnessed in South Africa since the 1990s. He asserted that those behind the violence have already been identified but declined to elaborate on the matter.
"It is quite clear that all these incidents of unrest and looting were instigated - there were people who planned it and coordinated it", Ramaphosa said during a visit to KwaZulu-Natal Province.
The statement was followed by the president's televised address to the nation, during which he said that at least 2,500 people had been arrested in connection with the unrest, urging South Africans to unite.
"If we stand together, no insurrection or violence in this country will succeed. We are engaged in a struggle to defend our democracy, our Constitution, our livelihoods, and our safety. This is not a battle that we can afford to lose", the president stressed.
Zuma's Path to Prison
As far as ex-President Zuma is concerned, he was imprisoned for 10 years in 1963 for fighting apartheid in South Africa. He went into exile in 1975 to become the spymaster of the African National Congress (ANC), before returning to the country in 1990, and rising to the presidency in 2009.
He was ousted in 2018 after internal discrepancies among the ruling ANC, which came amid public outrage over the government's alleged corruption and mismanagement of state resources.
Zuma currently faces a number of graft-related charges plus a separate corruption case related to an arms deal in 1999, when he was deputy president. He has repeatedly denied all the allegations, claiming that he's the victim of a political witch hunt.