South Africa to deploy army to quell violence as ex-leader Jacob Zuma faces court

South Africa will deploy soldiers to quell violence that erupted in the wake of former president Jacob Zuma’s jailing, the military said on Monday, after days of riots and looting left at least six people dead.

Disturbances worsened as Zuma challenged his 15-month prison term in the country’s top court after weekend unrest by pro-Zuma protesters in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) and Gauteng, where the country’s largest city Johannesburg is located.

Police said 219 arrests had been made, as opportunistic criminals appeared to take advantage of the anger some feel over Zuma’s incarceration to steal and cause destruction.

Any confrontation with soldiers risks fuelling claims by Zuma and his supporters that they are victims of a politically motivated crackdown by his successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Zuma, 79, was sentenced late last month for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption 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 enforce the rule of law, including against powerful politicians.

“The South African National Defence Force has commenced with pre-deployment processes … to assist law enforcement agencies deployed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces … to quell the unrest that has gripped both in the last few days,” the military said in a statement.

“The duration [of the deployment] and number of deploying soldiers will be determined based on the assessment of the situation on the ground.”

Zuma wants term jail rescinded

In a virtual hearing, Zuma’s counsel asked the constitutional court on Monday to rescind his jail term, citing a rule that judgments can be reconsidered if made in the absence of the affected person or containing a patent error.

Legal experts say Zuma’s chances of success are slim.

Footage shot by local TV channels on Monday showed a mall in Pietermaritzburg in KZN on fire, with a nearby highway closed to prevent further violence. Another mall in Vosloorus, Gauteng, was set alight amid vandalism and rioting, according to the TimesLIVE website.

Government intelligence agency NatJOINTS said the bodies of four people had been found — at least two of them with gunshot wounds — in Gauteng. Two deaths had occurred in KZN, and all six were being investigated.

The owner of a looted store in Katlehong, South Africa, reacts as he walks through the broken display of his shop on Monday. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

Zuma’s imprisonment marks a significant fall from stature for a leading figure in the liberation-movement-turned-ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC). He was once jailed by South Africa’s pre-1994 white-minority rulers for his efforts to make all citizens equal before the law.

Ramaphosa said on Sunday the violence was damaging efforts to rebuild the economy after the COVID-19 pandemic.

The corruption inquiry that Zuma has refused to co-operate with is examining allegations that he allowed three Indian-born businessmen — Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta — to plunder state resources and peddle influence over government policy. He and the Gupta brothers, who fled the country after his ouster and are believed to be living in Dubai, deny wrongdoing.

Zuma also faces a corruption case relating to a $2 billion arms deal in 1999 when he was deputy president. He denies the charges in that case.

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