South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has said the deadly violence gripping the country is unprecedented post-apartheid as he deployed troops to help police crush the violence and looting prompted by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma.

Ten people have died, some with gunshot wounds sustained before the army was deployed, and 489 people have been arrested. Among those killed was a 15-year-old boy who was shot in the chest with a rubber bullet, local media reported.

Around 2,500 soldiers were sent to the streets of the country’s two most densely populated provinces, Gauteng, where Johannesburg, the country’s largest city and economic powerhouse is located, and KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province. In Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal, paramedics were attacked during the violence, local agency News24 reported.

“Over the past few days and nights, there have been acts of public violence of a kind rarely seen in the history of our democracy,” said Ramaphosa in a televised address on Monday, adding that he was speaking with “a heavy heart”.

Overwhelmed police are facing mobs who have ransacked stores, carting away anything from crates of alcohol to beds, refrigerators and bath tubs.

Ramaphosa said he had “authorised the deployment of defence force personnel in support of the operations” of the police.

Earlier the army said they would assist police “to quell the unrest that has gripped both provinces in the last few days”.

It was the second successive day Ramaphosa had addressed the country on the violence.

South Africa’s supreme court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt, after he defied its order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in power, which ended in 2018.

Jacob Zuma sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court – video
Jacob Zuma sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court – video

It is the first time a former president has been jailed in post-apartheid South Africa and has been seen as a landmark for the rule of law in the troubled country, as well as a victory for Ramaphosa.

Ramaphosa ousted Zuma, who faced a slew of corruption allegations, in 2018 after taking over the leadership of the ruling African National Congress the previous year.

Zuma’s jailing will further strengthen the moderate and pragmatic faction of the ruling party, and significantly undermine the entrenched networks within the government and South Africa’s bureaucracy loyal to the former leader, analysts say.

Zuma’s core supporters, echoing the ex-president’s line, say he is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents. The 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter remains popular among many poor South Africans.

The centre of the unrest is Zuma’s home region, KwaZulu-Natal. In its capital, Pietermaritzburg, smoke billowed from the roof of a large shopping mall on Monday. Banks, shops and fuel stations in the city were shut.

A police helicopter hovered over the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto, where looters casually made off with giant TV sets, microwave ovens, clothes and linen, for hours. Many businesses were shuttered. A mall in Johannesburg’s upmarket Rosebank suburb closed early following “a tipoff that the looters are on their way,” a security guard told AFP.

In the meantime, chemists helping the government’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign warned that the unrest gripping the country would slow inoculations in the continent’s worst-hit country.

“Our vaccination programme has been severely disrupted just as it is gaining momentum,” said Ramaphosa.

– With Agence France-Presse