Death toll rises to 72 in South Africa as violence triggered by Zuma arrest escalates

By Lesley Wroughton, July 13, 2021

South Africa
Members of the military detain a suspected looter at Jabulani mall in Soweto, South Africa, on July 13, as unrest linked to the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma continues. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

CAPE TOWN — The massive army trucks appeared Tuesday outside of Louise Haynes’s community north of the port city of Durban, a day after violent protests that have swept across KwaZulu-Natal province came within earshot.

The trucks guarded the ramp into the coastal city of Ballito from the highway, which protesters have blocked along with other major roadways in demonstrations that have left 72 people dead. Looters have gutted shopping malls and other businesses in the eastern province, as well as in the nation’s industrial center in and around Johannesburg in Gauteng province.

The spasm of unrest is South Africa’s worst since the first all-race election in 1994 ended decades of apartheid rule that made the country an international pariah.

“We are on standby and have our bags packed,” said Haynes, a mother of three. “There are back roads where we can escape, but yesterday every single road was barricaded so we could not have left.”

The nationwide death toll included 10 killed in a stampede at a shopping mall south of Johannesburg, Gauteng Premier David Makhura told reporters.

Other provinces reported isolated incidents of unrest, but no reports of looting.

The violence was triggered by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on July 7 for contempt after he repeatedly refused to appear before a special commission investigating corruption during his nine-year presidency that ended in 2018.

Supporters of Zuma, the nation’s first Zulu president, began protesting his imprisonment after he turned himself in to authorities in KwaZulu-Natal, which includes the traditional Zulu homeland.

In the ensuing days, the protests spiraled into a looting spree that has crippled KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Johannesburg and blockaded major supply routes, leading to fuel and food shortages in the affected areas, government officials said.

South Africa
Game Warehouse in Durban is ransacked on July 13. (AFP/Getty Images)

More than 600 stores have been looted with billions of rand in damage, according to the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa, which called on the African National Congress government of President Cyril Ramaphosa to impose a state of emergency.

Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, speaking at a news conference Tuesday, said: “We have not reached that point yet.”

Ramaphosa ordered military units to affected areas Monday to support police forces unable to cope with the sheer numbers of people looting and rioting. More than 1,200 people have been arrested, Police Ministry spokeswoman Lirandzu Themba wrote on Twitter on Tuesday.

“No amount of unhappiness or personal circumstances from our people gives the right to anyone to loot, vandalize, and do as they please and break the law,” Police Minister Bheki Cele told reporters.

While the government blames the unrest on “opportunistic criminals,” the country’s security minister, Ayanda Dlodlo, acknowledged it was investigating reports that former officials close to Zuma were involved in instigating the violence.

Local television network eNCA broadcast video footage of chaotic scenes in Durban and nearby Pietermaritzburg as looters emptied warehouses before torching buildings and trucks in what longtime Zulu political leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi described as “a country at war with itself.”

“I am devastated,” a visibly upset Buthelezi told eNCA, blaming criminals and “an army of desperados” for the unrest.

“To see the country destroyed by ourselves really has broken my heart,” said Buthelezi, who headed the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party that engaged in low-level warfare against Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress in the run-up to the 1994 vote won by the ANC. “We must not bluff ourselves. This country is being completely destroyed now.”

South Africa riot
An armed man looks for looters in a supermarket in Durban on July 13. (Kierran Allen/Reuters)

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga said the unrest was part of frustration and anger over growing poverty, unemployment, and inequality almost three decades since apartheid ended. The coronavirus pandemic, again spreading across the country in a third wave fueled by the delta variant, has exacerbated long-standing social ills.

“It is simply a feedback for discontent,” Mathekga said. “We cannot ignore the socioeconomic roots of this thing and what got it to escalate to this point.”

He rejected what he called the “easy” option of blaming criminals for the looting.

“You have to ask why has our society got so many young people able and available to do these things? Because they’re not at work,” Mathekga said. The nation’s unemployment reached a record 32.6 percent in the first three months of 2021, with the rate for those 15-34 years old at 46.3 percent.

The economic hardship, worsened by the pandemic and resulting extended periods of lockdown to combat it, and widespread corruption have undermined the credibility of political leaders to call for a halt in the looting and rioting, Mathekga said.

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