Unrest spreads in South Africa in wake of Zuma jailing as grievances boil over

A woman walks past a fire truck as it extinguishes flames in a looted store in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 12, 2021.
A woman walks past a fire truck as it extinguishes flames in a looted store in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, South Africa, on July 12, 2021. © Yeshiel Panchia, AP

Crowds clashed with police and ransacked or burned shopping malls in South Africa on Tuesday, with at least 72 people reported dead as grievances unleashed by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma boiled over into the worst violence in years.


Soldiers were deployed on to the streets as outnumbered police seemed helpless to prevent attacks on businesses in Zuma’s home province KwaZulu-Natal and in Gauteng province, where the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg, is located.

"No amount of unhappiness or personal circumstances from our people gives the right to anyone to loot, vandalise and do as they please and break the law," Police Minister Bheki Cele told a news conference, echoing sentiments expressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa overnight.

The bodies of 10 people were found on Monday evening after a stampede at a shopping centre in Soweto. Police on Tuesday revised the official death toll to 72 in the unrest which broke out last week when Zuma handed himself over to authorities.

The protests have been fuelled further by frustration over poverty, inequality and the economic impact of Covid-19 restrictions.

The number of people arrested has risen to 1,234 while shops, petrol stations and government buildings have been forced to close.

Hundreds of looters raided warehouses and supermarkets in Durban, one of the busiest shipping terminals on the African continent and a major import-export hub.

Outside a Durban warehouse of retailer Game, Reuters filmed looters stuffing cars with electronic goods and clothes. Inside, the floor was a wreckage of discarded packaging as the crowd systematically emptied the shelves.

“What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said in an address on Monday night.

Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018.

The decision to jail him resulted from legal proceedings seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa’s ability to enforce the rule of law, including against powerful politicians.

But any confrontation with soldiers risks fuelling charges by Zuma and his supporters that they are victims of a politically motivated crackdown by Ramaphosa, his successor.

The violence worsened as Zuma challenged his 15-month jail term in South Africa’s top court on Monday. Judgement was reserved until an unspecified date.

The unrest broke out as South Africa’s economy struggles to emerge from the damage wrought by Africa’s worst Covid-19 epidemic, forcing it to repeatedly impose restrictions on businesses that have hurt an already fragile recovery.

The crisis may have widened the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. Growing joblessness has left people ever more desperate. Unemployment rose to a new record high of 32.6 percent in the first quarter this year.

The National Prosecuting Authority said on Monday that those found guilty of looting would be punished.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS and AFP)

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