Defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has said that the South African government is looking to deploy 25 000 members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) to help quell unrest and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and other hotspots.
A further deployment of SANDF members to areas affected by the ongoing violent attacks in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal was being considered by President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this week. Mapisa-Nqakula told the Joint Standing Committee on Defence (JSCD) on Wednesday night that Ramaphosa was not happy with the initial number of 2 500 soldiers deployed and suggested 10 000 members be deployed.
The minister, who was heading to a National Security Council Meeting, said the President was not worried about the cost of additional soldiers on the streets but more concerned about the looting and loss of lives. Opposition political parties suggested 75 000 SANDF members be deployed, including reserves. Mapisa-Nqakula told the JSCD that now a request has been submitted for the deployment of 25 000 uniformed members.
She said there are more than 1 000 soldiers in KwaZulu-Natal at present and around 800 in Durban. Initially soldiers were taking over ‘guard duty’ from the police, of things like airports and oil depots, but now they are protecting malls and other locations. At the moment, military vehicles are on the way to KwaZulu-Natal in order to help the SANDF become more visible. Mapisa-Nqakula said she wants there to be visible vehicle and helicopter patrols in addition to foot patrols.
Darren Olivier, defence expert and Director at African Defence Review, noted that not all the 25 000 SANDF members to be deployed will be ground troops, with some portion in support roles, but it still marks the SANDF’s biggest deployment since 1994.
“Reaching this number means reaching to the very back of the cupboard and taking everything that can move, no matter the cost or sustainability. It leaves nothing in reserve and halts all other SANDF duties and commitments. It’s a reflection of just how desperate things are,” he noted.
The SANDF was due to deploy to Mozambique on 15 July in line with a Southern African Development Community mandate, but it is believed this has been put on hold due to the unrest in South Africa.
Olivier noted that the deployment is a short-term, emergency, all-hands-on-deck situation and cannot be sustained for very long, “so government is clearly hoping that it’s effective enough to get the crisis under control quickly before it’s forced to reduce deployed numbers. The next few days are crucial.”
“This is the biggest SANDF deployment, for anything, since 1994. It far eclipses the number deployed for COVID-19 and will cost a substantial amount of money. At this stage, with the carnage and chaos continuing unabated, that’s a cost that can no longer be avoided.”
To give a sense of the numbers and why reserves are necessary, Olivier added up personnel numbers in SANDF regular force units that could possibly be used alongside the police, including Military Police, anti-aircraft artillery gunners, support staff etc. – this amounts to around 17 000 soldiers.
Mapisa-Nqakula will head to KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday morning. She said the situation there was very bad, and that attacks against shops and infrastructure was co-ordinated.
“What we see are seeds of counter-revolution, the undermining of the state, and the state must assert its authority,” said Mapisa-Nqakula.
More than 70 people have been killed in the unrest, and hundreds of businesses wrecked. Food and fuel supplies are running short. Shopping malls and warehouses have been ransacked or set ablaze in several cities, mostly in KwaZulu-Natal.
But in signs of a public backlash, residents in some areas on Wednesday turned suspected looters into police, blocked entrances to malls and in some cases armed themselves as vigilantes to form road blocks or scare them away, Reuters reported. In Vosloorus, southern Johannesburg, minibus taxi operators, many of whom have guns, fired bullets into the air to scare off looters.
In Alexandra township in northern Johannesburg, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, a Reuters correspondent saw soldiers moving door-to-door to confiscate stolen items, with the help of civilians opposed to the looting.
Citizens armed with guns blocked off streets to prevent further plundering, in Durban, Reuters TV footage showed. Others were forming online groups to help clean up and rebuild devastated neighbourhoods.
The violence appeared to have abated in some areas, but in others, there was renewed burning and looting.
Though triggered by Zuma’s imprisonment, the unrest reflects growing frustration at failures by the ruling African National Congress to address inequality decades after the end of white minority rule in 1994 ushered in democracy.
Half the population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest government figures from 2015, and growing joblessness since the coronavirus pandemic began has left many desperate. Unemployment stood at a new record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021.
The unrest also disrupted hospitals struggling to cope with a third wave of COVID-19.
The National Hospital Network (NHN), representing 241 public hospitals already under strain from Africa’s worst COVID-19 epidemic, said it was running out of oxygen and drugs, most of which are imported through Durban, as well as food.
The mayor of Ethekwini, a municipality that includes Durban, estimated that R15 billion rand had been lost in damage to property and another billion in loss of stock.