© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A self-armed local searches for looters in a supermarket after protests that have escalated into looting, in Durban, South Africa, July 13, 2021 in this screenshot from a video. Courtesy of Kierran Allen / via REUTERS
By Rogan Ward and Siyabonga Sishi
DURBAN, South Africa (Reuters) – South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Wednesday he could send more troops into the streets as the army and police struggled to quell days of looting and violence while some citizens armed to defend her Property and its business before the rampage.
More than 70 people have died in the riots, the worst in South Africa in years, and hundreds of businesses have been destroyed. Food and fuel supplies are running out.
Triggered by the imprisonment of ex-President Jacob Zuma last week after failing to appear for a corruption investigation, it has escalated into an orgy of looting and anger over the hardship and inequality that persisted in South Africa 27 years after the end of apartheid.
Shopping centers and warehouses were looted or set on fire in several cities, most notably in Zuma’s house in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, particularly in the port city of Durban in the Indian Ocean as well as in the financial and economic center of Johannesburg and the surrounding province of Gauteng.
Soldiers were deployed to help the outnumbered police force contain the riot. Security forces say they have arrested more than 1,200 people, but the government has held back from imposing a state of emergency.
Ramaphosa met with political party leaders Wednesday to discuss ways to deal with the unrest.
“President Ramaphosa welcomed the proposals of the political leaders and said an expansion of the South African National Defense Forces was under way,” a government statement said.
Violence appeared to have subsided in some areas on Wednesday, but renewed burning and looting occurred in others.
Citizens armed with guns, many from South Africa’s white minority, blocked roads to prevent further looting, Reuters TV footage showed. A man shouted to a group gathered on a street corner, “Go home and protect your homes”.
Other residents huddled in front of supermarkets and waited for them to open so they could stock up on essentials.
Some wealthy Durban residents chartered small planes and helicopters out of town, a Reuters photographer reported. Others stood in line for food and fuel. Many streets out of the city have been blocked by either looters or vigilante groups.
Previously, several stores were looted in the city of Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.
Clouds of black smoke rose from a burning warehouse in Durban while nearby people were loaded with goods scattered on the side of the road.
In Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, a Reuters correspondent saw soldiers go door-to-door with the help of civilians who resisted the looting to confiscate stolen items.
In Soweto, eNCA televisions showed civilians standing alongside police protecting shopping malls that have not yet been hit by rioters.
Overnight, the chaos spread to two other provinces – Mpumalanga, east of Gauteng, and Northern Cape, the police said.
The riots also disrupted hospitals struggling with a third wave of COVID-19.
The National Hospital Network (NHN), which represents 241 public hospitals already strained by Africa’s worst COVID-19 epidemic, said it was getting the oxygen and medicines, most of which are imported via Durban, as well as the food go out.
“The effects of the looting and destruction have dire consequences for hospitals,” said the NHN.
Staff in the affected areas are unable to get to work, adding to the bottlenecks caused by the pandemic.
The poverty and inequality that fuel violence have been exacerbated by severe social and economic restrictions aimed at containing COVID-19. The United Nations in South Africa expressed concern that transport disruptions for workers resulting from the unrest would also exacerbate the problems.
The rand hovers around the three-month lows, a retreat for one of the best-performing emerging market currencies during the pandemic.
South Africa’s largest refinery, SAPREF in Durban, has been temporarily closed, an industry official said on Wednesday.
The mayor of Ethekwini, the municipality that also includes Durban, estimated that R15 billion (US $ 1 billion) was lost to property damage and another billion to loss of stocks.
About 40,000 companies were affected by the riots, he said.
“Much of it may never recover,” he told reporters on Wednesday, putting nearly 130,000 jobs at risk.
Zuma, 79, was convicted last month for defying a court order to testify in a high-level looting investigation during his nine-year term ending in 2018.
He will also be tried in a separate trial for corruption, fraud, extortion and money laundering. The former president pleaded not guilty in court in May. His foundation said Tuesday the violence would continue until his release.
Although the riots were sparked by Zuma’s imprisonment, the riots reflect growing frustration at the ruling African National Congress’ failure to address inequality decades after the end of white minority rule in 1994 that ushered in democracy.
According to the latest government figures from 2015, around half the population lives below the poverty line, and rising unemployment since the pandemic has left many in despair. Unemployment reached a new record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021.
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