JOHANNESBURG – Government officials in South Africa on Monday deployed the military to quell the increasingly destructive unrest that has gripped parts of the country in recent days, causing multiple deaths and tens of millions of dollars in damage to businesses and highways and closings Transport services.

The volatility began last week with demonstrations in eastern KwaZulu-Natal province over the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, the former South African president, and has turned into looting, arson and gunfire, with chaos spreading to Johannesburg, the nation’s financial hub.

The looming unrest represents a deepening crisis for the country’s leadership as President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress face deep divisions within their ranks and social upheaval in a nation marked by high unemployment and a devastating wave is rocked by coronavirus infections.

Mr Ramaphosa has been criticized for his silence in the early days of the riot. “We will not tolerate any criminal activity,” he said during a national address on Sunday evening that was mainly intended to focus on the restrictions of Covid-19.

“Although at this moment there are those who can be hurt and angry,” he said, “there can never be any justification for such violent, destructive and disruptive acts.”

On Monday, much of the destruction appeared to have little to do with anger over Mr. Zuma’s detention, government officials said, but instead appeared to be opportunistic lawlessness. Some analysts and activists said it was an uprising that arose out of deeper problems of poverty and the lack of opportunities in the country.

Pictures on local news channels showed shopping malls burning, hundreds of people leaving stores selling items such as clothing and household appliances, and police followed and arrested anyone they could.

“While these actions are described by some as a form of political protest, they are now clearly criminal acts,” said Jessie Duarte, assistant secretary general of the African National Congress, during a press conference Monday.

The riots would hurt the poor and the 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 important highways were closed after vandals burned trucks in the middle of them. As of Monday morning, there were 219 arrests and six dead nationwide, according to police, although the details of these deaths are still under investigation.

Mr Zuma, 79, was sentenced to 15 months in prison by the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest judicial authority, for refusing to appear before a commission investigating widespread corruption allegations during his tenure as President from 2009 to 2018. He and his supporters sharply criticized the decision on the grounds that it had been treated unfairly and that a prison sentence without trial was unconstitutional.

Mr Zuma initially refused to go to prison as ordered by the court, but after lengthy negotiations with the police he finally gave in at the last moment and filed a complaint last Wednesday. His supporters, who vowed never to allow his arrest, then demanded the closure of his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. One of Mr. Zuma’s daughters, Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, posted pictures of the destruction on Twitter with messages of praise.

Amid the first flare-ups of the unrest in the streets, Mr. Zuma’s eponymous foundation said on Twitter that it had “noticed the reactive, sincere anger of the people”. The Post also indicated that people were provoked by Mr. Zuma’s detention.

Mzwanele Manyi, a spokesman for the foundation, said in an interview that she could not be blamed for the upheavals spreading across South Africa.

“We are not in a position to tell people how to react to the given situation,” he said, adding that Mr. Zuma was fighting the decision in court.

The Constitutional Court heard arguments on Monday in a motion from Mr Zuma for the waiver of his arrest warrant.

The imprisonment of Mr Zuma, a populist who has drawn a passionate following, heightened tensions between a loyal faction within the African National Congress and one loyal to Mr Ramaphosa, the current party leader. Zuma allies have tried to portray the current unrest as a failure of Mr. Ramaphosa’s leadership.

Ms. Duarte said the riots were orchestrated by people within the ANC to delegitimize and sabotage the current leadership. The party gave the police the names of people to investigate, she said.

“We can’t deny that this has been brewing,” she said. “It is unfortunate because anger and frustration can never induce you to do so much damage that has already been done.”