Unrest in South Africa triggered by the jailing of its former president Jacob Zuma has intensified, despite calls for calm from senior officials and the deployment of thousands of soldiers to the streets to reinforce struggling police.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has described the deadly violence and protests as unprecedented in the 27 years since the end of the apartheid regime in the country.
The death toll in the unrest has now risen to 45, some from gunshot wounds and ten during a stampede, while 750 people have been arrested. Among those killed was a 15-year-old boy who was shot in the chest with a rubber bullet, local media reported. Four police officers have been injured.
“We are confident our law enforcement agencies are able to do their job successfully. The current situation on the ground is under strong surveillance and we will ensure it will not deteriorate further,” police minister Bheki Cele told reporters, warning that the disturbances risked severe shortages of medicines and foodstuffs across South Africa.
The unrest has so far been limited to the country’s two most densely populated provinces, Gauteng, where Johannesburg, the country’s largest city and economic powerhouse is located, and KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province. Several of South Africa’s major highways were blocked.
There have been 26 deaths in KwaZulu Natal and 19 fatalities in Gauteng, including the ten who died in the stampede during looting of the Ndofaya Mall in the historic Johannesburg suburb of Soweto.
Reporters in Soweto watched where looters made off with giant TV sets, microwave ovens, clothes and linen. Some drove cars and pickup trucks to stores to help remove items.
There have been similar scenes across parts of KwaZulu Natal, Zuma’s home region and the centre of the unrest. Its capital, Pietermaritzburg, has been badly hit, with stores selling electronics, meat, clothes and sports equipment targeted.
In the centre of Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal, there were widespread break-ins and paramedics were attacked while footage shot by TV networks from helicopters showed large fires and hundreds of people milling around warehouses, store depots and factories on the outskirts.
Many businesses and malls in the two provinces were shuttered as a precaution while a number of false alarms led to the panicked evacuation of several malls in Johannesburg and elsewhere. There are also reports of panic-buying of fuel and food in some areas and growing shortages due to disrupted supply chains.
Cele said police were trying to monitor inflammatory social media posts and made a plea for measures against Covid-19 to be respected.
In a televised address on Monday, Ramaphosa said he was speaking with “a heavy heart” and called for respect for the law.
It was the second successive day the president had addressed the country on the violence, having announced an extensions of measures designed to counter a brutal third wave of Covid infections at the weekend.
There has been criticism that law enforcement agencies failed to pre-empt protests and the consequent violence. Officials sought to explain the apparent intelligence failure, telling reporters they were “not missing in action”.
South Africa’s supreme court sentenced Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt, after he defied its order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in power, which ended in 2018.
It is the first time a former president has been jailed in post-apartheid South Africa and has been seen as a landmark for the rule of law in the troubled country, as well as a victory for Ramaphosa.
The subsequent violence has tarnished this achievement, analysts say.
Ramaphosa ousted Zuma, who faced a slew of corruption allegations, in 2018 after taking over the leadership of the ruling African National Congress the previous year.
Zuma’s jailing will further strengthen the moderate and pragmatic faction of the ruling party, and significantly undermine the entrenched networks within the government and South Africa’s bureaucracy loyal to the former leader, analysts say.
Zuma’s core supporters, echoing the ex-president’s line, say he is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents. The 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter remains popular among many poor South Africans.
Chemists helping the government’s Covid-19 faltering vaccination campaign warned that the unrest gripping the country would slow inoculations in the continent’s worst-hit country. There are also fears the mass gatherings of looters and protesters could spread the virus.
“Our vaccination programme has been severely disrupted just as it is gaining momentum,” said Ramaphosa.
South Africa: 45 dead as unrest linked to Zuma jailing intensifies