As South Africa battles the Covid-19 pandemic, a fresh headache has emerged after protests that started last week in support of jailed former president Jacob Zuma degenerated into violence at the weekend, with shops looted, set alight and roads blocked in the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces.
On Sunday evening, about 20 protesters were arrested in the Johannesburg central business district and police fired stun grenades at looters.
By Monday the Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department had deployed officers to most parts of the city to try to contain the violence and had closed parts of the M2 highway, spokesperson Wayne Minaar said.
“We are closely monitoring the whole situation even in the CBD, we have members deployed around Jeppestown, Hillbrow and other parts of Johannesburg,” he said, adding that two people had died in Johannesburg from the violence.
On Monday, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) said it had started the process of deploying soldiers after receiving a request to assist the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) in bringing calm to both KZN and Gauteng.
The violence comes in the wake of protests last Friday when Zuma’s supporters went on the streets in KZN, angry over his 15-month imprisonment for contempt of court after he defied an order to testify before the Zondo commission probing state capture. Many saw the case as a key test for upholding the constitution and the law in South Africa.
On Monday morning, violent mobs were filmed ransacking major retailers in towns in Zuma’s home province of KZN, including Eshowe and KwaMashu and there were scenes of burnt cars on freeways while a shopping mall was set alight. The “Free Zuma” campaign originated in the province last week.
The N3 highway in Durban was closed after trucks and cars were torched overnight.
In a national address on Sunday, mainly focused on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa veered off to address the violence, saying while protests were a constitutional right, there was no justification for violence and criminality and it was hurting efforts to rebuild the economy.