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.
At least 10 people have died, some from gunshot wounds, and 750 people have been arrested, police minister Bheki Cele told reporters. 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,” Cele said, 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.
A police helicopter hovered over the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto, where looters made off with giant TV sets, microwave ovens, clothes and linen. Others drove cars and pickup trucks to stores to help remove items.
Many businesses and malls were shuttered as a precaution while a number of false alarms led to the panicked evacuation of several malls in Johannesburg and elsewhere.
The centre of the unrest is Zuma’s home region, KwaZulu-Natal. In its capital, Pietermaritzburg, smoke billowed from the roof of a large shopping mall on Monday. Banks, shops and fuel stations in the city were shut. In the centre of Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal, there were widespread break-ins and paramedics were attacked.
Cele said police were trying to monitor inflammatory social media posts and made a plea for measures against Covid-19 to be respected.
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.