South Africa mulls more troop deployment amid fresh looting

President Cyril Ramaphosa meets with leaders of political parties to discuss ways to address days of unrest that has left scores dead and battered the economy.

People loot an area near a burning warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African leader Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa, July 14, 2021.
People loot an area near a burning warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African leader Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa, July 14, 2021. (Reuters)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has said he might order more troops onto the streets as the army and police struggled to quell days of looting and violence, while some citizens armed themselves to protect their property and businesses from the rampage.

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Ramaphosa met with leaders of political parties on Wednesday to discuss ways to address the unrest.

“President Ramaphosa welcomed proposals made by political leaders and said expanded deployment of the South African National Defence Force was being addressed,” a government statement said.

The king of Zulu community, the country’s largest ethnic group, also called for an end to unrest after six days of looting left scores of dead and battered the economy.

“I call for peace,” Misuzulu Zulu said on state television.

The violence “has brought great shame on all of us,” he said, adding “this chaos is destroying the economy, and it is the poor who will suffer the most.”

The violence appeared to have abated in some areas on Wednesday, but in others, there was renewed burning and looting.

Looting continues

Citizens armed with guns, many from South Africa’s white minority, blocked off streets to prevent further plundering, Reuters TV footage showed.

One man shouted at a group gathered at a street corner: “Go home and protect your homes”.

Other residents crowded outside supermarkets waiting for them to open so they could stock up on essentials.

Some rich Durban residents chartered small planes and helicopters out of the city, a Reuters news agency photographer reported.

Others queued for food and fuel. Many roads out of the city were blocked either by people looting or vigilantes.

Durban warehouse on fire

Earlier, several shops were being looted in the town of Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.

Plumes of black smoke rose from a burning warehouse in Durban, while nearby people loaded up with goods scattered on the roadside.

In Alexandra township in Johannesburg on Wednesday, 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.

In Soweto, eNCA television footage showed civilians alongside police protecting malls that were yet to be hit by rioters.

Overnight the chaos spread to two other provinces – Mpumalanga, just east of Gauteng, and Northern Cape, police said.

Hospitals disrupted

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 impact of the looting and destruction is having dire consequences on hospitals,” the NHN said.

Staff in affected areas were unable to get to work, it said, worsening shortages caused by the pandemic.

The poverty and inequality fuelling the violence has been compounded by severe social and economic restrictions aimed at curbing COVID-19.

The United Nations in South Africa expressed concern that disruptions to transport for workers from the riots would also exacerbate the problems.

The rand is hovering around three-month lows, a retreat for what had been one of the best performing emerging market currencies during the pandemic.

$1 billion lost in damage

South Africa’s largest refinery SAPREF in Durban has been temporarily shut down, an industry official said on Wednesday.

The mayor of Ethekwini, the municipality that includes Durban, estimated that 15 billion rand ($1 billion) had been lost in damage to property and another billion in loss of stock.

Some 40,000 businesses had been hit by the unrest, he said.

“A large portion of these may never recover,” he told reporters on Wednesday, which put almost 130,000 jobs at risk.

Zuma’s imprisonment

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

He also faces trial in a separate case on charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering. The former president pleaded not guilty in court in May.

His foundation said on Tuesday that violence would continue until his release.

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.

Roughly half the population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest government figures from 2015, and growing joblessness since the pandemic has left many desperate. Unemployment stood at a new record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021.

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