NKANDLA, South Africa — The threat of bloodshed and civil unrest hung in the air for days, but it vanished quickly and painlessly under a star-freckled country sky.
When Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s former president, was whisked away late Wednesday to prison from his Nkandla homestead in a motorcade of luxury cars, there was a sense of relief that a vow by his supporters to fight the police to the death to prevent his arrest never came to pass.
But while the start of Mr. Zuma’s 15-month prison sentence for contempt unfolded smoothly, the road ahead for one of Africa’s storied liberation parties may be anything but easy. The incarceration of Mr. Zuma, 79, drove a deeper wedge through the governing African National Congress party, long fractured between allies of the former president and the current one, Cyril Ramaphosa, according to party members and political analysts.
The Zuma camp, which had maintained that Mr. Zuma was treated unjustly, quickly framed his imprisonment as an extension of his legacy as a freedom fighter, which included a decade incarcerated on Robben Island alongside Nelson Mandela. There were calls for civil disobedience and to defy the current party leadership.
Now questions are swirling around whether the divisiveness will further erode the party’s electoral dominance, with the prospect that angry Zuma supporters could turn away from a party they insist has mistreated him. And some worry about the effect the A.N.C.’s internal squabbles could have on a government battling a slew of formidable challenges: staggering unemployment, a vicious third wave of coronavirus infections, vast inequality and the shoddy delivery of basic services like water and electricity.
“These internal battles, by the way, have nothing to do with what is in the interest of the majority of people,” said Tshepo Madlingozi, a law professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. “I’m scared that this kind of division and internal fights moves our focus away from the real issues.”
In some ways, Mr. Ramaphosa — once Mr. Zuma’s deputy but now his foe — may be able to tighten his grip on control of the party and the government, experts said.
He rose to power on a vow to root out corruption that had become endemic during the Zuma years. Mr. Zuma’s arrest may send a warning to the former president’s allies, some of whom have their own corruption-related legal entanglements.
It also may force some of Mr. Zuma’s allies within the party to distance themselves from him out of political expediency and to fall in line with Mr. Ramaphosa’s program of governance.
Mr. Ramaphosa, 68, is a billionaire who made much of his wealth in business investments during post-apartheid efforts at Black economic empowerment. His governing efforts have centered largely on restoring business confidence in South Africa by shepherding the country past an era in which graft may have driven away many investors and hurt the economic prospects and livelihoods of everyday citizens.
Critics argue that Mr. Ramaphosa has failed to embrace an aggressive strategy to eradicate the country’s racial wealth disparities, and they accuse him of helping South Africa’s white minority preserve its economic dominance.
Zuma supporters claim to promote a program called radical economic transformation, which seeks to increase Black wealth through things like the seizure of white-owned land. They frame Mr. Ramaphosa not as an anticorruption crusader, but as someone using the courts to settle political scores.
The A.N.C. seemed to acknowledge its fragile state, releasing a statement on Thursday that praised Mr. Zuma for turning himself in and also emphasized the importance of the rule of law.
“Without doubt,” it said, “this is a difficult period in the movement, and we call upon our members to remain calm.”
On Friday, Zuma loyalists took to the streets of KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Zuma’s home province in the country’s east, to protest by blocking roads, looting stores and setting fires in a campaign promoted on Twitter under the hashtag #FreeJacobZuma. Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, one of Mr. Zuma’s daughters, urged on the demonstrations, posting videos of some of the protests on Twitter with messages of praise.
The differing factions within the A.N.C. often align less with ideology and more with political convenience and survival, analysts said. Some party officials and members have shifted allegiances between Mr. Zuma and Mr. Ramaphosa, with positions within the party and in government often acting as the currency that determines where one’s loyalties rest.
Mr. Ramaphosa’s faction won two battles on Friday. In separate rulings, judges allowed Mr. Zuma’s imprisonment to stand and upheld the A.N.C.’s suspension of Ace Magashule, its No. 3 official and a close ally of Mr. Zuma, who is facing criminal charges for corruption accusations.
It is unclear how formidable Mr. Zuma’s support is right now, or whether it could present a real challenge to Mr. Ramaphosa at next year’s national elective conference, where a party leader will be chosen.
“Being a Zuma supporter, sometimes it does cause a bit of detriment, particularly if you are a leader that’s young,” said Nomvula Mdluli, 31, an active A.N.C. member in KwaZulu-Natal. “You do get marginalized at times.”
Ms. Mdluli said she supported Mr. Zuma because she felt he aligned with radical economic transformation, and she believed he was being punished for that view.
During a rally outside Mr. Zuma’s home on Sunday, Mr. Magashule urged hundreds of supporters to push back against the directives of party leadership.
“They want to disband and remove comrades,” Mr. Magashule told the roaring crowd. “When they disband you as a branch, you must still be a branch. When they suspend you, you must still be a member of the A.N.C. They must not intimidate you.”
Mr. Zuma publicly criticized the judiciary as biased against him, suggesting, without evidence, that he was the victim of a conspiracy.
Mr. Zuma ultimately gave into the arrest at the last possible hour, much the way he resigned the presidency in 2018 after days of sparring with his party.
Then, as now, Mr. Zuma hinted at the prospect of civil unrest if he did not get his way.
Mr. Zuma’s arrest came after he refused to appear before a corruption inquiry that started in 2018 and has revealed damning evidence about the extent of corruption during his administration.
“They morally undermine Zuma to the point where he becomes isolated,” said Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst in Johannesburg.
Mr. Zuma ignored an order by the Constitutional Court, the nation’s highest judicial body, to testify, and the court sentenced him to prison for contempt.
He could be released on parole after serving just under four months.
Although he is already behind bars, Mr. Zuma has not given up his fight. His lawyers filed a petition asking the Constitutional Court to rescind its imprisonment order, and the court agreed to hear arguments on Monday.
In the days leading up to Mr. Zuma’s arrest, party officials worked feverishly to broker a peaceful resolution.
Mdumiseni Ntuli, the secretary of the A.N.C. in KwaZulu-Natal, was among a delegation of officials who met with the former president and stressed the importance of avoiding violence if he were taken into custody.
Mr. Ntuli said he did not expect a mass exodus from the party by Mr. Zuma’s supporters. At least not yet.
“I think what is likely to happen is that you may have deepening divisions and factions, which will be at each others’ throats,” he said. “But I don’t think that anybody would want to go out of the A.N.C. and form another organization.”