JOHANNESBURG — Government officials in South Africa deployed the military on Monday in an effort to quell increasingly destructive unrest that has gripped parts of the nation over the past several days and has led to several fatalities, tens of millions of dollars in damages to businesses and the shutdown of highways and transportation services.
The volatility started with demonstrations last week in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal over the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, the former South African president, and has devolved into looting, arson and gunfire, with the chaos spreading to Johannesburg, the nation’s financial hub.
The unfolding turmoil presents a deepening crisis for the country’s leadership, with the president, Cyril Ramaphosa, and his governing African National Congress confronting deep divisions within their ranks as well as social upheaval in a nation staggering from high unemployment and a devastating wave of coronavirus infections.
Mr. Ramaphosa is facing criticism for his silence in the early days of the unrest. “We will not tolerate acts of criminality,” he said during a national address Sunday night that was meant to focus primarily on Covid-19 restrictions.
“While there are those who may be hurt and angry at this moment,” he said, “there can never be any justification for such violent, destructive and disruptive actions.”
By Monday, much of the destruction seemed to have little to do with anger over Mr. Zuma’s imprisonment, government officials said, and instead appeared to be opportunistic lawlessness. Some analysts and activists said it was an uprising born of deeper issues of poverty and lack of opportunity in the country.
Images on local news stations showed malls burning, hundreds of people leaving stores with items like clothes and appliances, and the police chasing down and arresting whomever they could catch.
“While these actions are being characterized by some people as a form of political protest, they are now clearly acts of sheer criminality,” Jessie Duarte, the deputy secretary general of the African National Congress, said during a news conference on Monday.
The unrest would hurt the poor and marginalized the most, Ms. Duarte said, by destroying businesses that employ people, and disrupting public services and transportation that workers rely on to get to their jobs.
Parts of major highways have been shut down after vandals burned trucks in the middle of them. As of Monday morning, the police said, 219 arrests had been made nationwide, and there were six deaths, though the details surrounding those fatalities were still being investigated.
Mr. Zuma, 79, was ordered imprisoned for 15 months by the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest judicial body, for refusing to appear before a commission investigating sweeping corruption allegations during his time as president from 2009 to 2018. He and his supporters sharply criticized the decision, saying that he was treated unfairly and that sentencing him to prison without a trial was unconstitutional.
Mr. Zuma initially refused to turn himself into prison as the court had ordered, but after lengthy negotiations with the police, he eventually gave in at the last moment and reported to the authorities last Wednesday. His supporters, who had vowed never to allow his arrest, then called for a shutdown of KwaZulu-Natal, his home province. One of Mr. Zuma’s daughters, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, posted images of the destruction on Twitter with messages of praise.
Amid the first flickers of upheaval in the streets, Mr. Zuma’s namesake foundation said on Twitter that it had “noted the reactive righteous anger of the people.” The post went on to suggest that people had been provoked by Mr. Zuma’s incarceration.
Mzwanele Manyi, a spokesman for the foundation, said in an interview that it could not be blamed for the upheaval spreading across South Africa.
“We are in no position to dictate how people should respond to whatever situation they are responding to,” he said, adding that Mr. Zuma was fighting the decision through the courts.
The Constitutional Court heard arguments on Monday in a petition by Mr. Zuma to have his order of imprisonment rescinded.
The incarceration of Mr. Zuma, a populist who attracts a passionate following, exacerbated tensions between a faction within the African National Congress loyal to him, and one loyal to Mr. Ramaphosa, the current party leader. Zuma allies have sought to portray the current unrest as a failure of leadership by Mr. Ramaphosa.
Ms. Duarte said that the unrest had been orchestrated by people within the A.N.C. to delegitimize and sabotage the current leadership. The party has handed the names of individuals over to the police for investigation, she said.
“We can’t deny that there has been a brewing of this,” she said. “It’s unfortunate because no amount of anger, frustration can ever move you to doing this amount of damage that has already been done.”