July 28, 2021
By Josh Schlicht
Edited by Jacques Bahati
“A coordinated and well planned attack on our democracy”. These were the words used by President Cyril Ramaphosa to describe the recent deadly unrest in South Africa. The violence broke out following the arrest of former South African President Jacob Zuma for his failure to appear before a judge in court for a corruption inquiry. Thousands took to the streets in and around Durban, the largest city in Zuma’s KwaZulu homeland. Political and economic analysts believe that the majority of the rioters were not provoked by Zuma’s arrest, but rather were motivated by desperation, having endured worsened poverty due to the Covid-19 pandemic2.
Zuma is an extremely popular figure in this region, and news of his fifteen-month sentence for contempt of court spurred protests and rioting. The angry and opportunistic rioters set up roadblocks on major highways, ransacked entire shopping malls and warehouses, and firebombed local businesses1. The uncontrollable situation spurred President Ramaphosa to deploy the military to quell the violence. When the dust settled, at least 215 people had died, 2500 arrests were made, and over $680 million in goods were stolen1. The rioting has been an international embarrassment for South Africa, and has reignited racial and ethnic tensions in the post-Apartheid State.
Zuma has a long, complex, and controversial history in South Africa. Zuma entered politics with the African National Congress (ANC) in 1959. For his participation in this revolutionary movement, he was imprisoned by the Apartheid State on Robben Island. It was here that he befriended fellow inmate Nelson Mandela. Following the end of Apartheid, Zuma quickly rose to prominence and power, seen as a hero for Black South Africans. He served as Deputy President of the ANC from 1999-2017, and rose to the office of President of South Africa, serving from 2007 to 2017.
However, Zuma’s political career has been constantly plagued by corruption accusations, court cases, rape allegations, and turmoil. The current South African Government estimates that over $35 Billion was stolen from the state during Zuma’s reign3. Zuma was a man who symbolized change, justice, and equality in South Africa, but transformed into a corrupt elitist, who chose financial gain over the welfare of his people again and again.
Zuma assumed he would never have to answer for his crimes, relying on his popularity and support from decades before. Zuma miscalculated, and justice has come for him. Despite the violence which has marred Zuma’s imprisonment, this unprecedented challenge to corruption is very important step in the right direction for all of Africa. For too long, African leaders have been able to use their political standing to plunder the wealth of those they claim to represent. If anything at all, let the imprisonment of Zuma serve as a warning to corrupt African presidents, current and former. If Africa is to succeed and thrive in the coming century, the powerful must be held accountable and face justice when necessary.