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South Africa Sees Violent Week, Unrest After Arrest Of Former President


South Africa is ending one of its most violent weeks since the end of apartheid. More than 100 people have been killed, and more than 1,000 have been arrested in the middle of riots and looting in two of the country's biggest cities. NPR's Africa correspondent Eyder Peralta just arrived at his new base in Cape Town, South Africa, and he joins us now. And Eyder, good timing of this move as far as covering this news, even if that was an accidental move, because you're now there for this very big story. Can you tell us what started this? We've been reporting an arrest of a former South African president. Tell us what happened there.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Yeah, look, so South Africa has - for years now, they've been locked in a legal drama with its ex-president, Jacob Zuma. And Zuma is this charismatic, beloved, populist liberation hero who has also been accused of massive corruption, and the country set up a commission to look into the allegations. And way back in 2013, they called on Zuma to testify. He refused. And last week, a court finally ordered his arrest for being in contempt of court.

South Africa is a fairly new democracy, and this was a huge post-apartheid test of whether big, powerful men like former President Jacob Zuma could be held to account. And Zuma said this was a political witch hunt and that putting him in jail during a pandemic was a death sentence. And his supporters, especially in his home region of KwaZulu-Natal - they took to the streets to protest his arrest.

PFEIFFER: And then these protests got out of control. Is that what happened?

PERALTA: They did. And the violence has just been terrible. Whole malls have been looted. Shopkeepers have been killed in confrontations. People have been killed in stampedes. In Durban, a building was set on fire, and a mom had to throw her child from the second story to save her. The government called this violence economic sabotage, hinting that this was orchestrated by political adversaries. But this is also coming at a really tough time here in South Africa. South Africa has been hit hard by COVID, and right now, we're at the peak of the third wave and in the middle of another lockdown. There's a massive youth unemployment.

And this was already one of the most unequal countries in the world. So sure, this could be orchestrated, but these are also South Africans from all walks of life taking part in this looting. It's a cross-section of South Africans stealing everything from pigs to diapers to big screen TVs. And the government sent about 20,000 troops into the streets of Durban and Johannesburg to calm the situation.

PFEIFFER: And has the government going in like that calmed things down? Are things back to normal?

PERALTA: Yeah. I mean, yesterday and today, things look a little more normal. Highways are open, and looters are mostly off the street. But look, the truth is that all of the problems that ail South Africa - they are still here. I spoke to Dr. Mathews Phosa, who is an influential member of the ANC, the ruling party, and he says, yes, this is about whether South African institutions can hold a powerful man to account. But it's also a moment where the government can look inward. Let's listen.

MATHEWS PHOSA: I think it's a moment of big reckoning. This republic must understand that it has good institutions, but at the same time, people don't eat institutions. We need economic growth in this country. We need job creation. We need to defeat hunger. If people are hungry, they're angry.

PERALTA: If people are hungry, they are angry, he says. And that means that politicians and powerful people, no matter who they are, can use South Africans who are frustrated to try and get their way.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta in Cape Town. Thanks for covering this as soon as you moved there.

PERALTA: Thank you, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.