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South African riots death toll hits 72: Unrest explained

Thousands are protesting an ex-president's arrest by rioting and looting -- at a time when 25% of COVID tests are turning up positive.

Daniel Van Boom Senior Writer
Daniel Van Boom is an award-winning Senior Writer based in Sydney, Australia. Daniel Van Boom covers cryptocurrency, NFTs, culture and global issues. When not writing, Daniel Van Boom practices Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, reads as much as he can, and speaks about himself in the third person.
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Daniel Van Boom
6 min read

Former President Jacob Zuma's arrest sparked the riots. 


South Africa is in strife. President Cyril Ramaphosa has called in 25,000 military troops to stop the looting and rioting that's raged since last Friday. It's being called the worst spate of violence since Apartheid ended in 1994: The death toll has reached 72 as of Tuesday, and over 1,700 people have been arrested

Those fatalities have come from overt acts of violence like shootings, arson and explosions, as well as instances of looters being trampled to death. In addition to more violence, there are concerns the riots will cause a rise in COVID cases and deaths as, with a population of 59 million, the country is in the midst of its worst wave of COVID yet.

"Our vaccination program has been severely disrupted just as it is gaining momentum," Ramaphosa lamented in a nationwide TV address on Monday, as he announced the mobilization of military forces. In addition to violence and coronavirus spread, Ramaphosa said the riots will disrupt food and medicine supply in coming weeks. 

At the center of the unrest is 79-year-old Jacob Zuma, who was South Africa's president from 2009 to 2018. Accused of overseeing a kleptocratic state during his years in power, Zuma was arrested on July 7. Two days later, the looting started.

Who is Jacob Zuma? 

Jacob Zuma assumed the presidency in 2009. Like all of South Africa's presidents in the post-apartheid era, Zuma was once a freedom fighter in the ruling African National Congress alongside Nelson Mandela. After years of corruption allegations, and facing a vote of no confidence, Zuma resigned as president in 2018. 

Zuma is accused of mass cronyism. Under his rule, critics charge, billions of dollars were siphoned out of the state and into the pockets of officials and their associates. The phrase "state capture" is now ubiquitous in South African politics -- it denotes state institutions being used as vehicles for self enrichment. 

The state power utility, Eskom, epitomizes the graft. Power shortages led to countrywide blackouts in 2007, after which two coal-fired power plants were commissioned. They were scheduled to be completed in 2012 and 2013, respectively, but both are still under construction. One is scheduled to be fully operational by the end of the year, the other by May 2024. Amid ongoing "load shedding," in which different regions of the country endure scheduled blackouts because there's not enough electricity to power the whole country at once, a probe by British law firm Bowmans red-flagged $12 billion worth of Eskom contracts as dubious, inflated or corrupt

Eskom is one of many state institutions thought to have been touched by governmental rot. Before Zuma became president, South Africa was ranked at number 55 on Transparency International's global index, which ranks corruption around the globe. That put it just below Czech Republic and just above Samoa and Malaysia. In 2018, the year Zuma left office, the country was ranked 73, below Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.   

So why was he arrested? 

When Zuma was arrested last Wednesday, it wasn't on corruption charges -- it was for contempt of court. He's been sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Zuma refused to appear in front of the Zondo Commission, which he himself started in 2018 as president. The Zondo Commission's aim is to investigate claims of state capture and public sector corruption. Zuma faces 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering. Many of these relate to a 1999 arms deal, in which Zuma is alleged to have accepted bribes from a French arms manufacturer. More charges are expected to be added as the commission's work continues.

Zuma has rejected all charges. "I have been vilified, alleged to be the king of corrupt people," he told the inquiry in 2019. He has claimed to be the victim of a conspiracy to remove him from politics, one that includes foreign agents. "They took a decision that Zuma must be removed from the decision-making structures of the ANC. That's why the character assassination, that is the beginning of the process that has put me where I am today," Zuma said in 2019

In December 2020 Zuma was summoned to testify to the commission twice more, in January and February. After he missed his January testimony, South Africa's Constitutional Court ordered Zuma to testify to the commission. After Zuma refused, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. Zuma handed himself over to authorities last Wednesday.

"The rule of law won," wrote David Everatt, professor of urban governance at the University of Witwatersrand. "The institutions that had been so assiduously hollowed out under the nine years of his presidency had flexed their new-found muscle."

When did the rioting start?

Protests broke out last Friday, two days after Zuma's arrest, in the ex-president's home province KwaZulu-Natal. KwaZulu-Natal is the second biggest province in South Africa by population, home to over 11 million of its citizens. Prior to Zuma handing himself in, supporters amassed at Zuma's residence to prevent authorities from arresting him. 

Supporters blockaded roads and resorted to arson, which included burning down buildings. Shopping centers and factories have been attacked and looted, reportedly including distribution centers for LG and Samsung. In one distressing scene captured by the BBC, a woman was forced the throw her baby from a burning apartment block to a crowd below

Protests, rioting and looting have since spread to Gauteng, the country's smallest province by land mass and largest province by population. Gauteng's capital is Johannesburg, the country's financial center. With supermarkets looted, food trucks burned and a national highway closed off, some fear oncoming food shortages.   

With local police overwhelmed, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday deployed the military into the two provinces. Over 1,200 people have been arrested, with 72 killed. 

Why are people rioting? 

This will be a tricky question in the coming months, one which is likely to be litigated in court. Explainations include political violence, opportunistic looting, ethnic tension and dissatisfaction with poverty and inequality. 

Many are blaming family and close associates of Zuma for inciting the violence. Zuma's daughter compared President Ramaphosa to apartheid-era leadership and encouraged her 100,000 Twitter followers to protest by applauding videos of arson and obstruction

The Jacob G Zuma Foundation seemingly condoned the violent protests, tweeting: "The Foundation has noted the reactive righteous anger of the people of [South Africa], which others have characterised as violence. When approached, the people are saying they reacting to the violent provocation meted to them as manifested by incarcerating President Zuma without trial."

It later tweeted: "Peace and stability in South Africa is directly linked to the release of President Zuma with immediate effect."

Though the unrest began as protests in Zuma's home state by his supporters, Ramaphosa said this:  "What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft."

Some have called the protests a repudiation of the state of South Africa. The country is in the midst of a wicked COVID wave: 12,500 positive cases were recorded out of 51,000 tests on July 13, meaning roughly one in four tests come out positive. South Africa has the highest official unemployment rate in the world, at 32% and one of the highest crime rates. The World Bank called it the most unequal country in the world in 2018. 

"Although these may be opportunistic acts of looting driven by hardship and poverty," President Ramaphosa said, "the poor and the marginalized bear the ultimate brunt of the destruction that is underway.