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Why South Africans are protesting the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma

Zuma’s brand of populism centered on providing opportunities for poor rural residents, but it was clouded by controversy

- July 13, 2021

On July 7, former South African president Jacob Zuma surrendered to police and was arrested. Local protests, centered on the Zuma family compound, have been ongoing since late June.

Since Zuma’s arrest last week and the high court’s denial of his appeal on Friday, protests have spread to major cities and townships in South Africa. Online hashtags call for #FreeJacobZuma, and in Durban, protesters threatened to shut down the KwaZulu-Natal province unless authorities released Zuma, South Africa’s first Zulu president.

Over the weekend, police arrested hundreds of people as the protests turned violent. By Tuesday, at least 45 people had died, many of them trampled as crowds began looting. The South African government deployed the military to quell the unrest. Here are four things to know:

1. Why was Zuma arrested?

Zuma was president of South Africa from 2009 to 2018, when his African National Congress (ANC) party forced him to step down. Zuma then received a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court after he refused to appear before a state commission of inquiry into corruption under his administration.

Africans find it hard to learn what their governments are up to. It’s no surprise many suspect corruption.

Separately, Zuma faces 16 other charges, including racketeering, fraud and money laundering, related to a 30 billion Rand ($5 billion) arms deal he negotiated as vice president in 1999. Government prosecutors first brought these charges in 2008 but dropped them when Zuma ran for president in 2009. Zuma maintains his innocence, pleading not guilty, and calling the inquiry a witch hunt.

This isn’t Zuma’s first brush with controversy. A criminal trial, other corruption charges, a court finding that he violated the constitution and a charge of hate speech all predate his current legal troubles. But none of these episodes ever resulted in a guilty verdict.

Zuma and his supporters allege that these charges are politically motivated and that the repeated acquittals are proof of an ongoing campaign against him. In a statement just before his arrest, Zuma announced: “I am not scared of going to jail for my beliefs. It will not be for the first time. I will be a prisoner of conscience.”

2. Why this isn’t “ethnic mobilization”

Because the protests are mostly in majority-Zulu areas, some commentators, including South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, have called the violence “ethnic mobilization.”

South Africa’s Zulu nation is riveted by a royal succession drama. It’s about more than who takes the throne.

But Zulu nationalist leaders have condemned the violence, and Zulu traditional leaders have distanced themselves from Zuma.

What explains the continued support for Zuma? It’s largely the same things that made him popular as a leader: his stated preference for engaging in large-scale economic redistribution — albeit at times through corrupt means — to address persistent, racialized poverty in South Africa.

Zuma’s home in Nkandla, the site of the earliest protests, emerged as a special point of investigation in the corruption inquiries. Zuma poured millions into upgrading the family’s houses — adding a swimming pool, a helipad and underground bunkers. He also enhanced the surrounding area, bringing in electricity, roads and piped water after he became president in 2009.

Zuma is often credited with winning the KwaZulu-Natal province, home to the majority of the country’s Zulu population, for the ANC. The nationally dominant ANC never held a majority there until Zuma first ran for president in 2009. But Zuma faced heavy opposition in the province from the Zulu-Nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party and never consolidated a Zulu voting bloc — he even lost his home district to the opposition during his term as president.

3. What explains Zuma’s brand of populism?

Zuma’s supporters are mostly young, often economically disadvantaged people who were receptive to his message demanding dignity for rural, poor, uneducated people. These were people like him, he argued. This message has found an audience because the majority of South Africans who were impoverished under the apartheid system have not broken free of poverty under democratic rule, even while South Africa’s middle and upper classes have become somewhat more racially diverse.

Zuma’s populist economic message, combined with his trademark charisma and flair, especially in his native Zulu language, endear him to his supporters. He stands in contrast to his rival, Ramaphosa, a wealthy, technocratic businessman from Soweto.

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For many South Africans, frustrations with government reached a boiling point in the face of an economic downturn associated with the coronavirus pandemic, as unemployment reached record heights. Zuma’s arrest — and the apparent rejection of his ideology, in contrast with the technocratic centrism of the ruling party — seems to be a flash point for a deeper sense of dissatisfaction.

4. What’s at stake?

Zuma’s trial has been a test for the strength of democratic institutions in South Africa. Would the institutions of the post-apartheid state serve as impartial judges and ensure the rule of law? So far, the answer is yes.

The demonstrations against Zuma’s arrest, however, have added a new dimension to the challenges South Africa faces. The widespread anger at the lack of progress on economic equality and the belief that the government is targeting a politician who claimed to stand for those people left behind are palpable in the protests.

One Zuma supporter clarified about the protests: “For our people, this is not lawlessness. … It is survival, and survival at all cost.” The Jacob Zuma Foundation tweeted Friday that the organization has “noted the reactive righteous anger of the people.” If these are the responses to actions from state institutions carrying out their functions, then the question remains: For whom were these institutions designed? The answer from the protesters seems to be: Not us.

The challenge of creating an impartial government that also addresses the injustices of the past is at the heart of building democracy in South Africa. This question of who has been left behind by post-apartheid institutions is at the very center of this matter.

Ramaphosa in a speech Monday night acknowledged these inequalities. He noted that “the violence may indeed have its roots in … a political purpose. … However, what we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality … driven by hardship and poverty.” Whether Zuma’s supporters will believe that South Africa’s current government can change these realities is another matter entirely.

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Carolyn E. Holmes (@carolyneholmes) is assistant professor of political science at Mississippi State University, and author of “The Black and White Rainbow: Reconciliation, Opposition, and Nation-Building in Democratic South Africa” (University of Michigan Press, 2020).