JOHANNESBURG, South Africa: At least six people were killed as the South African government deployed army on Monday to help quell violent protests and widespread looting following the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.
Hundreds of angry residents ransacked shops and malls, torched cars and blocked major roads, bringing public transport to a near standstill in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal and the economic capital, Johannesburg.
Others, many armed with sticks, marched through downtown Johannesburg and the city of Durban. There were reports of live bullets being fired at police.
Last month, South Africa’s Constitutional Court sentenced the former president—who resigned in 2018 under pressure from his own African National Congress—to 15 months in prison after he refused to testify at a government-mandated commission investigating allegations of widespread corruption during his nine years in power.
He was arrested on Wednesday after failing to hand himself in to the police within the mandated three days.
While the initial reaction to Zuma’s arrest was muted, protests grew in KwaZulu-Natal over the weekend before turning increasingly violent and spreading to Johannesburg on Sunday. By Monday evening, at least 10 people had been killed, including a security guard, and police had arrested nearly 500 others.
Zuma, 79, remains popular in his home province of KwaZulu-Nata, where he is seen to embody traditional values. Local media showed footage on Monday of a blaze at a mall in Pietermaritzburg, in KwaZulu-Natal.
According to reports, the highway leading to the city had been closed to prevent further violence.
In Eshowe, a town near Zuma’s Nkandla home, police opened fire to disperse crowds after a supermarket was ransacked.
Police said some sections of a major road in Johannesburg had been closed because of the protests.
“Over the past few days and nights, there have been acts of public violence of a kind rarely seen in the history of our democracy,” President Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s successor, said in an address to the nation, reading out the names of those who died in the unrest. As television stations broadcast the president’s speech, some carried split screens showing the continuing looting outside.
Ramaphosa said he had authorized the deployment of soldiers to support the police and other law-enforcement agencies. Authorities have struggled to contain the violence and enforce a ban on public gatherings and a nightly curfew to slow a record wave of Covid-19 infections across the country, which has overwhelmed hospitals and led to shortages of oxygen.
Ramaphosa said the violence threatened to disrupt South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccination drive, just as it is starting to gain momentum, and could lead to shortages in the food and medicines if major transport routes continued to be cut off.
Zuma’s conviction after more than 20 years of allegations of corruption and other wrongdoing was widely seen as a victory for Ramaphosa, who has pledged to clean up South African politics and the ruling ANC.