Looting, violence in SA ebbing


South Africans counted the cost on Thursday of arson and looting that destroyed hundreds of businesses and killed at least 117 people, as the spasm of violence began to ebb and government doubled its troop deployment.

Pockets of unrest remained, notably in Durban, where looters pillaged shops and racial tensions flared.

In the main commercial city Johannesburg, shopkeepers and residents sifted through debris, cleared up trash and assessed what remained of ruined enterprises.

The rioting started in response to the jailing of ex-President Jacob Zuma last week for failure to appear at a corruption inquiry and subsequent sentencing for contempy.

It degenerated into looting and destruction, driven by anger over hardship and inequality that nearly three decades of democracy since the end of apartheid failed to address.

The military called up all its reservists to bolster army and police who struggle to contain the unrest.

Acting minister in the office of President Cyril Ramaphosa, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said troop numbers doubled since Wednesday to 10 000. This was still fewer than the 25 000 Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said were requested.  

Ntshavheni said the death toll rose to 91 in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province where his support is greatest and stood at 26 in Gauteng, making a total of 117 killed so far. A total of 2 203 arrests have been made.

“We should be worried at the nature of violence we’ve seen, the nature of criminality,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in an audio clip shared by her ministry.

“South Africa’s economy was just beginning to recover from the worst effects of the pandemic.  This is going to further reverse economic growth.”

In some neighbourhoods, vigilante groups sprung up to protect property. There is also evidence the latest chaos may be exacerbating racial tensions that are a legacy of the apartheid system.

In Durban’s Phoenix, home to many South Africans of Indian descent, authorities reported conflict between them and Black citizens.

“There are ugly scenes playing out on the streets of Phoenix, the racial direction this unrest is taking must be arrested speedily,” Police Minister Bheki Cele said.

Twenty people died in Phoenix since the start of violence last week, he later said on television.

An informal slum housing poor Blacks was burned down in Pietermaritzburg, the mayor for the municipality that includes it said.

Ransacking of stores left food and other essentials in short supply and closure of many petrol stations hit transport supply lines.

At Diepkloof Mall in Soweto, about 50 people swept up broken glass and packed empty shoe boxes into plastic rubbish bags, a Reuters reporter said.

Clothing stores were empty and looted ATM machines lay strewn around.

“It’s hear tbreaking. Everything is gone. It’s going to take months to be back up again,” said Ricardo Desousa, manager of a ransacked butcher shop in Soweto’s Bara Mall.

His staff helped clean up the damage. “They’re not going to get paid,” he said. “There’s no money.”

The destruction of businesses is likely to exacerbate poverty and desperation partly fuelling the riots.

Half of South Africans are below the official poverty line and unemployment stood at a record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021, due partly to the impact of COVID-19.

Pillaging continued on Thursday in Durban, where a Reuters reporter saw crowds in Mobeni rolling away trolleys loaded with maize meal and staples.

Zuma (79) was sentenced last month for defying an order to give evidence at a judicial inquiry probing high-level graft during his time in office from 2009 to 2018.

He pleaded not guilty in a separate case on charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering, saying he is the victim of a political witch-hunt.

His downfall opened up a power struggle in the African National Congress (ANC), in power since the end of apartheid in 1994. Zuma loyalists make up the strongest faction opposed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

William Gumede, a professor in governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the chaos was likely to cost the ANC in lost votes. Local government elections are set for October.

“Black people lost the most. Businesses were affected, with mainly Black employees without work,” he said. “So, you can imagine the anger towards the ANC among many former supporters.”

The unrest also disrupted hospitals struggling to cope with a third wave of COVID-19. They are running out of oxygen and drugs, most imported through Durban. Some vaccination centres were forced to shut.