Six dead in South Africa as army quells pro-Zuma protests

A police officer detains demonstrators in Katlehong, South Africa, today as protests continue following the imprisonment of former South African president Jacob Zuma

Pretoria has begun deploying troops on the streets of several South African cities on the fourth day of massive protests in which at least six people have been killed.

The demonstrations sparked by the detention of former President Jacob Zuma are also being driven by massive unemployment and economic malaise caused by COVID-19 lockdowns.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a national address Monday evening that the protests would soon lead to shortages in food and medicine if they didn’t stop, and had already interrupted the country’s vaccination programme at a time the government is attempting to ramp up the pace of shots.

Yesterday, the South African military announced it would begin putting troops on the streets of several major cities, including the legislative capital of Johannesburg and the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, after mass protests brought fires, looting, and several deaths from gunshot wounds.

“The South African National Defence Force has commenced with pre-deployment processes and procedures in line with a request for assistance received… to assist law enforcement agencies deployed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces respectively to quell the unrest that has gripped both Provinces in the last few days,” the military said in a statement obtained by AFP.

The size and duration of the deployment will be determined “according to the assessment of the situation on the ground by the police,” the statement adds, noting their missions will be “to provide security and a safe working environment for law enforcement agencies” to do their job.

However, Reuters reported that one of its field reporters had already spotted troops in Pietermaritzburg.

Video from the town yesterday morning showed flames billowing from a shopping mall, and there were widespread reports of looting, fires, and police shooting rifles and tear gas at protesters.

Other videos on social media showed at least two bodies in a ditch alongside the road, although it wasn’t clear where the video had been filmed.

In Phoenix, an Indian town between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, residents took up arms and set up roadblocks, shooting several looters dead. A reporter with South African news outlet eNCA reported that “racial discrimination is creeping into the action taken by some residents to ‘protect’ themselves,” although it was unclear who was targeting who.

According to Reuters, at least 219 people have been arrested since the protests broke out on Friday. While they were primarily focused in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, where Zuma is from, protests and looting were also reported in Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where Reuters saw police shooting at looters with rubber bullets.

Ramaphosa rose to power on a pledge to tackle corruption in the African National Congress, and after replacing Zuma as party chief in 2017, the ANC pulled its support in parliament from Zuma and he was forced to resign, with Ramaphosa replacing him as president as well. However, Ramaphosa, a banker, has met his own accusations of graft and corruption as well.

Zuma’s arrest is widely seen as further widening the split in the ANC, as the two factions vie to claim the legacy of the movement that ended Apartheid white minority rule in 1994.