Jacob Zuma, former president of South Africa, has consistently refused to acknowledge the authority of the country’s courts, producing bogus medical excuses, offering legal arguments without substance year after year, and declining to appear before Justice Raymond Zondo, who chairs the inquiry into corruption during Zuma’s time in office, on the shaky ground that Zondo once fathered a child with the sister of a woman who decades later became one of Zuma’s many wives.

By the first week of July, Zuma’s long duel with the court system seemed to come to an end when the Constitutional Court, the highest body in the judicial system, ordered his imprisonment for 18 months on the charge of contempt of court.

For several days Zuma’s homestead in rural Zululand, paid for by public money, became the face of defiance. Zulu militias, supposed veterans of the guerrilla war of the 1980s, and various disgraced politicians joined a subset of the former president’s children, one apparently very drunk, and vowed that their leader would never set foot behind bars. On July 7, an hour before the deadline set by the court, Zuma nevertheless surrendered to the police and was transported to jail.

Two days later, dozens of trucks were set alight in the KwaZulu interior. They have long been a target because many have foreign, specifically Mozambican, drivers, resented by the local competition. One of the former president’s daughters was the most prominent of his supporters in praising the arson on social media. It seems that behind the scenes, the paramilitary groups that burned the trucks were turning their attention to bombing cellphone pylons, hospitals, apartment buildings and supply depots used to store food.

The membership of the disaffected groups overlaps with the gunmen, hijackers, and other enforcers used by politicians and minibus companies throughout the province to assert their power. Local Zulu politicians and neighbourhood organisers tied to Zuma’s faction of the ruling party seem to have roused their entire communities to join in.

Attacks on hundreds of shopping centres began the next day around the entire province and in Johannesburg, home of many migrants from KwaZulu-Natal. Reporting shows startling scenes of box stores surrounded by thousands of minibus taxis which came to transport looted goods. Mobs overran security guards in minutes while policemen, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, often made little effort to resist. Men and women walked past television reporters making no effort to conceal stolen goods: refrigerators, prams, flat screen televisions. The insides of almost every shopping mall in the province, and in many parts of Johannesburg, are covered in broken glass and the remnants of looted inventory.

There were extremely violent confrontations when African looters tried to enter largely Indian areas and were stopped by Indian gunmen. But the material on social media is unreliable and the reports of the Zuma faction on supposed massacres of looters are unreliable. The tension between communities is undeniably high and the increasing xenophobia of Zuma’s radical allies in the Economic Freedom Fighters is palpable.

The damages will certainly run into the billions of dollars, mounting by the day as South Africa’s supply network is paralysed on a scale that is perhaps unprecedented in peacetime in a modern country. Even worse are the arson attacks on residences and the stray deaths and killings. Looting mobs trampled dozens of their own members to death, ignoring the bodies for many hours as they wrestled their new possessions back to their houses: a scene of human degradation and moral decay comparable to the most macabre images of recent times. One poignant video clip shows a mother throwing her daughter from the second floor of a burning building into the hands of the men below.

The largest peacetime mobilisation of the South African army, 25,000 troops, has yet to fully establish order as milk, bread, and fuel run out in Durban and nearby towns. The former president’s son, Duduzane Zuma, self-possessed to a fault, chose to begin his campaign for the leadership of the ruling party at once with an inimitable message on Instagram: “Loot carefully and responsibly.”

Duduzane Zuma’s mother, Kate Mantsho, committed suicide in December 2000. The suicide note recalled “24 years of hell” at her husband’s hands. Still, Duduzane’s loyalties and disposition run closer to his father, as does his luck with the courts (at least until July). Duduzane once ran into and killed two women in his Porsche SUV, an action for which he was entirely exonerated by a complacent court. A pathologist even judged the reason for one of the woman’s deaths to be “natural causes.”

Duduzane’s Twitter account is naturally the best explanation of the recent mayhem. On July 10: “Let everything burn. #FreeJacobZuma.” Four days later, following a temporary suspension from Twitter, came the more measured reflection: “The reason why the ANC [African National Congress] could not prosecute apartheid crimes was so that we can avoid racial division and unrest. Why is it that the same logic can’t be used to keep my father out of jail? Is the death of 72 people and counting, worth proving [a] point?”

Jacob Zuma, his children, and his violent co-conspirators are putting the squeeze on South Africa. Almost anybody who works in the country has had the experience of being squeezed in this way, a mixture of intrigue, rumour, threats, blackmail, fabrication, intimidation and racial mobilisation that ensures that you comply with the wishes of a powerful person or group. If you are an employer and you don’t raise wages to the union’s satisfaction, your factory burns down. If you don’t pay a bribe to a local gang, you can’t operate a business. If you don’t give a student the correct grade, you can face similar pressures.

Rape, arson, and pillage are a succinct rendering of Jacob Zuma’s career as a squeezer. The past week, certainly the worst in the country’s recent history and maybe ever, has been a writing of that formula out in the open. The president who helped carry out one of the greatest crimes in modern history – the looting of an entire state’s coffers for his family and mistresses and business associates – has now levelled an entire province.

The secondary consequences include a further economic slide, and the inevitable surge in Covid-19 infections and the paralysis of the testing and vaccination programme (the very talented Health Minister Zweli Mkhize is currently suspended on grave suspicions of corruption). Despite Duduzane’s recommendation of “careful and responsible looting”, the disaster has become so extreme that the taxi or minibus transport companies, notorious employers of gunmen and smugglers of contraband, have begun to guard the remaining infrastructure and keep the remaining shopping centres safe, fearing that they will have nobody to take to work if there are no more workplaces.

For a quarter of a century South Africa has tried to run a democracy without effective law or police. It does not control its borders. It has abandoned its citizens to be preyed on by criminals. Its economic policies, which would only work with Scandinavian levels of productivity and honesty, are disastrous in an African context, as are the ever more stringent racial quotas on hiring. As a result, its vast state-run enterprises, from electricity and schooling to defence and the provision of water, have almost collapsed, pillaged by criminal networks.

Duduzane Zuma’s best argument in his campaign to be leader of the ruling party may be that he far better represents the spirit of the country than the honest but largely ineffective and irrelevant President Cyril Ramaphosa. South Africa’s stability has not been so fragile since before the first democratic election in 1994.

At the same time, the lessons for any enlightened leadership have never been clearer if the country is willing to learn: economic statism and tolerance of corruption, along with the cult of violence and revanchism evident not only in Zululand but in the language of student movements and the Economic Freedom Fighters, have brought South Africa to the point of breakdown.

Ramaphosa is known to value the insights of Deng Xiaoping: “crossing the river by feeling for the stones”. Deng’s opportunity to remake China also came in the wake of the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution.

South African novelist Imraan Coovadia is the director of the creative writing programme at the University of Cape Town.