The imprisonment of South Africa’s former president, Jacob Zuma, has sparked a wave of unrest in the country that some local analysts recall as the largest since the apartheid era.
Authorities have confirmed at least 212 people dead as a result of violence on the streets and looting in shops and department stores.
Police have arrested more than 2,500 people, thousands of businesses have been razed and up to 161 shopping centres burned, affecting the economy in some parts of the country and even affecting supplies to hospitals as the Delta variant of coronavirus spreads.
Zuma went to prison after refusing to appear before a judicial panel investigating corruption during his time as president between 2009 and 2018.
The former president must now answer to a Pietermaritzburg court on 16 counts of fraud, corruption and racketeering, some of which date back to 1999, when he was deputy president and was involved in the purchase of military equipment from five European companies.
“Following the arrest of the former president, his supporters demanded the overturn of the rule of law, so that he could be released. His supporters are those who benefited from the massive corruption during the Zuma presidency. They are now fighting back and trying to instigate a popular uprising in his defense”, General Secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa (TEASA), Moss Ntlha, told Spanish news website Protestante Digital.
For the South African government, despite being controlled by the same party to which Zuma belongs, the historic African National Congress, there is a political motivation behind the riots led by the pro-former president supporters, who still hold sway.
“It’s clear the events were nothing but a deliberate and well planned attack on our democracy. These actions were intended to cripple the economy of our country and dislodge the democratic state”, pointed out current President Cyril Ramaphosa.
According to TEASA, “after what initially looked like spontaneous wild fire rioting, it has now become clear that it was an organised program of destabilisation following the arrest of the former state president Jacob Zuma”.
“Many communities have started to defend their own towns against those who wish to instigate rioting. Even poor people who were looting have admitted that they were recruited by instigators who assured them that the police would not respond, and that they could help themselves with free food”, they added..
Because of this, “billions of rands have been lost due to the damages caused, and investor confidence has been affected”.
The epicentre of the protests was the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where Zuma is from. Although the government has deployed 10,000 soldiers on the streets, many believe that the security forces’ delayed response has allowed the situation to spiral out of control.
“Some of Zuma supporters were deployed by the former president in the country’s security apparatus, and appear to continue to have influence there. The slow response of law enforcement to the riots is widely viewed as having been caused by their influence”, explained Ntlha.
“Of the nine provinces of the country, only two have been badly hit by the riots.,Stability has started to return to the affected communities”.
The TEASA reported that “churches are offering pastoral and intercessory ministry. Many prayer groups have ben created to pray for peace and calm. Churches are also responding to the needs of the poor who cannot get food because supermarkets have been razed to the ground and looted, and routes bringing supplies have been locked”.
The riots in South Africa have come as the country enters a new phase in the evolution of the Covid-19 Delta variant pandemic. As of Monday 19 July, the country’s Ministry of Health has recorded more than 2.2 million infections and over 64,500 deaths.
“We are in the middle of a third wade of the Delta variant of the coronavirus. It is very bad and infections are high, with death rates also rising. Government has introduced lockdown level 4, which restricts all gatherings, including religious gatherings”, underlined Ntlha.
According to TEASA General Secretary, “some churches are pressurising government to open the churches, but TEASA believes that such a move is ill advised at this point in the third wave of the pandemic”.
The recent unrest has also highlighted the delicate economic situation in the African powerhouse following the impact of the pandemic. The Evangelical Alliance recalled that “churches are very involved in caring for the needy, especially following the devastating impact of Covid on the economy”.
“They provide food and other pastoral care and support. Many new churches have been planted as a result of such response by churches to human need. TEASA also works with other organisations to train unemployed youth to start their own businesses”, said Ntlha.
South Africa has so far approved four coronavirus vaccine patents: Pfizer/BioNTech, Johnson&Johnson, Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sinovac, according to the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).
However, vaccination in the country is proving challenging. In February 2021, the South African government halted vaccination with the Oxford/AstraZeneca because of its low effectiveness against the mutated local variant of the virus.
Furthermore, the country has also become a focus for profiteering mafias who steal Covid-19 vaccines and sell fake ones. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), almost half of the counterfeit medicines between 2013 and 2017 were found in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Vaccine scarcity has meant that only over 50 year olds and above are eligible for vaccination. From the 15th July, 35year olds and above can now register to be vaccinated”, explained the TEASA.
Another problem is the misinformation about coronavirus vaccination. The Evangelical Alliance has organised webinars and conferences to “address the misinformation regarding COVID vaccination, and encouraged churches to take their jabs”.
“The latest research of the Medical Research Council and the Human Science research council suggests that 52 .3% of people say they would definitely take the jab, if it were available, while 14.2% say even if it were available, they would definitely not take it. In between are those who are uncertain”, concluded Ntlha.