JOHANNESBURG – South Africa deployed troops on Monday to quell violence that erupted following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma, after days of riots that left at least six dead.
Police said unrest escalated and 219 people were arrested as the controversial ex-leader challenged his 15-month prison sentence before the country’s highest court.
Smoke from burning buildings swirled through the air as items from burgled stores lay on the side of the road in Pietermaritzburg, Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).
The sporadic pro-Zuma protests that erupted when he surrendered last week quickly turned into looting and arson, mainly in KZN but also in Gauteng where the largest city of Johannesburg is located.
Some Covid-19 vaccination sites and clinics in Gauteng and KZN have been closed due to safety concerns, the Gauteng provincial government and an independent pharmacy association said, further delaying a slow vaccination campaign.
Opportunistic criminals appear to be taking advantage of anger some over Zuma’s incarceration to steal and cause destruction, police said.
An army statement said “pre-deployment processes have started” following a request for assistance from a government intelligence agency, but a Reuters cameraman in Pietermaritzburg saw soldiers already armed. in the streets.
President Cyril Ramaphosa will address the nation over the violence, his office said.
Any confrontation with soldiers risks fueling claims by Zuma and his supporters that they are the victims of politically motivated repression by his successor Ramaphosa.
Zuma, 79, was sentenced late last month for defying a constitutional court order to testify in a high-level corruption investigation during his nine years in office until 2018.
The decision to jail him resulted from legal proceedings seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa’s ability to uphold the rule of law, including against powerful politicians.
In a virtual hearing on Monday, Zuma’s lawyer asked the constitutional court to overturn his prison sentence, citing a rule that judgments can be reviewed if they are rendered in the absence of the person concerned. or containing an obvious error. But legal experts say Zuma’s chances of success are slim.
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Footage shot by Reuters in Katlehong Township in Gauteng showed police firing rubber bullets at looters to disperse them.
At the Jabulani Mall in Soweto, looters brazenly walked past television cameras carrying armfuls of stolen goods.
Liquor stores were among those affected, as the sale of alcohol is currently banned under Covid-19 restrictions designed to ease pressure on hospitals, as are corporate stores like the Clicks drugstore group. and food retailers Pick n Pay and Shoprite.
As of Monday morning, the bodies of four people were found – at least two with gunshot wounds – in Gauteng, intelligence agency NatJOINTS said. Two deaths had occurred in KZN, and all six were under investigation.
Ramaphosa said on Sunday that the violence was not justified and that it was hurting efforts to rebuild the economy after Covid-19.
The ruling African National Congress (ANC) said on Monday that the poor would bear the brunt of the destruction as essential public services were disrupted and several small businesses destroyed.
Zuma’s imprisonment marks a significant drop in the stature of an ANC figurehead.
He was once jailed by leaders of South Africa’s white minority before 1994 for his efforts to make all citizens equal before the law, but for many his reputation is now tarnished after a series of corruption scandals and of corruption.
The corruption investigation that Zuma has refused to cooperate with examines allegations that he allowed three Indian-born businessmen, Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta, to plunder state resources and sell their influence on government policy. He and the Gupta brothers, who fled the country after his ouster, deny any wrongdoing.
Zuma also faces a corruption case related to a $ 2 billion arms deal in 1999 while he was vice president. He denies the charges in this case.