Violence Flares in South Africa as Ex-President Zuma Jailed

13 July 2021 Leighton G. Luke, Research Manager, Indo-Pacific Research Programme

Now serving a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court, the imprisonment of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma has triggered protests and opportunistic looting while perpetuating the division within the African National Congress government between his supporters and those loyal to President Cyril Ramaphosa.



Rioting and looting have occurred in the province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and areas of Johannesburg in the wake of the imprisonment of disgraced former president, Jacob Zuma. With the protests becoming increasingly violent and descending into lawlessness with up to ten lives lost, President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised on 12 July the deployment of 2,500 armed forces personnel to aid police in their attempts to restore calm. As of 19 July, at least 212 people have died in the violence.



Zuma was sentenced by South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, to 15 months’ imprisonment for contempt of court after he failed to appear before the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into corruption during his presidency. Zuma handed himself in to the police on the night of 7-8 July, just 40 minutes before the deadline for him to do so expired. His supporters later took to the streets of his home province, with protests beginning in and around the KZN capital, Pietermaritzburg, before spreading across the province to Durban and north into Gauteng province, breaking out in several township areas and the Hillbrow neighbourhood of Johannesburg.

The 79-year old Zuma was found guilty by the Constitutional Court on 29 June for refusing to appear before the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. The Zondo Commission is tasked with investing corruption and “state capture” – the use of government resources for the personal enrichment of Zuma and his associates – during Zuma’s 2009-18 presidency.

In addition to being a litmus test for the strength and independence of the post-apartheid judiciary – which stood against the depredations foisted upon it and the country during Zuma’s presidency – this latest instalment in the Zuma saga speaks volumes of the deep rift in the governing African National Congress (ANC) between diehard Zuma supporters and those loyal to President Ramaphosa.

While Ramaphosa may enjoy a relatively high level of public popularity and is, in general, held in higher regard than his predecessor, his government has struggled to address the deep and ingrained socio-economic problems that continue to afflict South Africa 27 years after the end of apartheid. Zuma supporters accuse Ramaphosa, a self-made billionaire and – like Zuma – one of the country’s wealthiest people, of largely paying lip service to the notion of black economic empowerment and permitting the continued prosperity of white South Africans, rather than enacting what they see as more “transformative” measures, such as, for instance, the confiscation without compensation of white-owned land.

Speaking to a meeting of the party’s national executive committee, Ramaphosa described Zuma’s jailing as ‘a sad moment for the ANC’ and the prelude to it as ‘a concerted attempt to destabilise the ANC in its bid to root out corruption’. The President called on the party to renew itself and to be sensitive to peoples’ hurt – presumably at their former leader’s fall from grace. Not holding back, Ramaphosa went on to say that:

We have also seen progress in our various attempts at rooting out corruption and ill-discipline within our ranks and also beginning the process, difficult as it is, of tackling factionalism. The events of the last two weeks have shown the difficulty of this task. It does not happen in a linear fashion, there are lots of detours.

We have witnessed concerted attempts to sow division in our ranks and destabilise our organisation by forces intent on pursuing narrow interests. These forces, both within our ranks and outside our movement, are threatened by the process of renewal and rebuilding.

Unfortunately for Ramaphosa, the jobs of rebuilding the ANC and improving the lot of South Africa’s poorest have been made significantly more difficult by Covid-19, which has now gripped the country in a deadly third wave. Already cash-strapped after the theft, self-enrichment and economic mismanagement of the Zuma years, Pretoria’s finances have taken further hits from Covid and in the value of the rand, which has fallen again in the wake of this week’s disturbances by two per cent to 14.47 to the US dollar, its worst level since 30 April.

The government’s efforts to counter the virus have hit the least well-off the hardest, potentially accounting for the descent of the pro-Zuma protests in many areas into rampant looting. As Ramaphosa told the nation in a late-night televised address on 12 July, in bringing together large numbers of people, whether they be protesters, opportunistic criminals or law enforcement personnel, the violence has the potential to both further spread the virus and to impede the government’s vaccination programme by restricting access to clinics and increasing the demands placed on the healthcare sector.

Although he may no longer walk the corridors of power, Zuma’s legacy of corruption and illegality continues to cast a shadow far beyond the grounds of the Union Buildings.


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