South African authorities have sent troops into two provinces and cancelled all police leave as they struggle to contain a wave of violence sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma.

At least 10 people have been killed and nearly 500 arrested in a spate of arson attacks and looting that began in Mr Zuma’s home province of Kwa-Zulu Natal after he began his prison term on Thursday night.

The violence was "unprecedented" in post-apartheid South Africa, a visibly tired president Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address to the nation on Monday.

"Parts of the country are reeling from several days and nights of public violence, destruction of property and looting of the sort rarely seen before in the history of our democracy," he said.

"What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of violence. There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the destruction we have seen."

He also warned that the unrest threatened to derail the country’s vaccination program and could lead to shortages of food and medicine in the weeks to come. 

Rioting has also spread to Gauteng, the province that includes Johannesburg, prompting over-stretched police to request army support.

"The South African National Defence Force has commenced with pre-deployment processes and procedures in line with a request for assistance received… to assist law enforcement agencies deployed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces respectively to quell the unrest that has gripped both Provinces in the last few days," the military said in a statement on Monday.

The announcement came as the country’s highest court began hearing an appeal by Mr Zuma’s lawyers to have his jail term cancelled.

Former president Jacob Zuma has been jailed for 15 months for contempt of court

Credit: Rogan Ward/Reuters

The South African Constitutional court on June 29 sentenced Mr Zuma to fifteen months imprisonment as punishment for his refusal to appear before a public enquiry investigating allegations of corruption during his nine years as president.

He gave himself up to police on Wednesday evening and is currently incarcerated at the Estcourt Correctional Center, but has continued to lodge legal challenges to his sentence.

Last week a court rejected his application to have the sentence postponed.

In the virtual hearing that began on Monday, his lawyer asked the court to rescind Mr Zuma’s jail term, citing a rule that judgements can be reconsidered if made in the absence of the affected person or containing a patent error.

Mr Zuma’s sentence has been cited by anti-graft campaigners as a test of South Africa’s commitment to the rule of law 27 years after the ANC overturned apartheid.

A Johannesburg police officer walks between burnt cars at a car showroom in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, following riots on Sunday

Credit: Luca Sola/AFP

But the subsequent violence has raised fears that supporters of Mr Zuma, an ethnic Zulu, could seek to exploit racial divisions to further stoke unrest. 

Kwa-Zulu Natal was the scene of intense fighting between supporters of the ANC and the predominantly Zulu Inkatha Freedom party in the early 1990s. 

Rioters have torched at least 30 lorries heading to or from the port of Durban, the busiest port in Africa, and dozens of freeways and roads within the province were closed down for more than two days. Looting subsequently spread to Guatang, the province that include Johannesburg.

[WATCH] Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg is on FIRE 🔥 . This is a developing Story #KZNshutdown #FreeJacobZuma #FreeZumaNow #shutdownkzn #ShutdownSA

— Free State Central News (@fscentralnews) July 12, 2021

On Monday a mall in Pietermaritzburg, the second largest city in Kwa-Zulu Natal, was burnt to the ground and police were reported to have traded live fire with rioters in Durban.

Videos are circulating on social media of community private security groups firing at looters.