Residents count cost as South Africa looting starts to die down

A man carries an object near a warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma, in Durban, South Africa

South Africans counted the cost of an orgy of arson and looting that has destroyed hundreds of businesses and killed at least 70 people as the spasm of violence began to ebb on Thursday.

Pockets of unrest remained, notably in the port city of Durban, where looters again pillaged shops and racial tensions flared.

But in the main commercial city Johannesburg, shopkeepers and other residents sifted through debris, cleared up trash and assessed what remained of their ruined enterprises.

Also on Thursday, the military called up all its reservists to bolster army and police who have struggled to contain the unrest.

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula said on Wednesday she wanted to deploy up to 25,000 soldiers in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, which bore the brunt of the several days of violence.

About 5,000 troops are already on the streets, authorities said, and security forces have so far arrested at least 1,350 people.

The rioting first broke out in response to the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma last week for his failure to appear at a corruption inquiry.

It swiftly degenerated into looting and destruction, driven by widespread anger over the hardship and inequality that nearly three decades of democracy since the end of apartheid have failed to address.

In some neighbourhoods, vigilante groups have sprung up to protect their property. But there was also evidence the latest chaos may be exacerbating the racial tensions that are a legacy of the apartheid system.

In Durban’s Phoenix neighbourhood, home to many South Africans of Indian descent, authorities reported conflict between them and Black citizens.

“There are ugly scenes playing out on the streets of Phoenix, the racial direction that these unrests are taking must be arrested speedily,” Police Minister Beki Cele said.

Fifteen people have been killed in Phoenix since the start of the violence last week, Cele said in a statement, without elaborating on who was killed or how.

The ransacking of stores has left food and other essentials in short supply, and the closure of many petrol stations has also hit transport supply lines.

At Diepkloof Mall in Soweto, South Africa’s biggest township, about 50 people swept up broken glass and packed empty shoe boxes into plastic rubbish bags, a Reuters reporter said.

Clothing stores were empty, with racks and naked mannequins scattered across the floor. Looted ATM machines lay strewn around.

“It’s heartbreaking. Very, very heartbreaking. Everything is gone. It’s going to take months to be back up again,” said Ricardo Desousa, manager of a ransacked butcher shop in Soweto’s Bara Mall.

His staff were helping clean up the damage. “They’re not going to get paid,” he said. “There’s no money.”

An unknown number of people have been forced out of work due to the destruction of businesses, which is likely to exacerbate the poverty and desperation that partly fuelled the riots.

Half of South Africans are below the official poverty line and unemployment stood at a record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021, thanks partly to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.

Pillaging continued on Thursday in Durban, where a Reuters reporter saw crowds in the Mobeni neighbourhood rolling away trolleys loaded with maize meal and other looted staples.

POLITICAL COST

Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying an order to give evidence at a judicial inquiry probing high-level graft during his time in office from 2009 to 2018.

He has pleaded not guilty in a separate case on charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering. He says he is the victim of a witch-hunt by his political foes.

Zuma’s fall from grace has opened up a power struggle within the African National Congress (ANC), which has ruled since the end of apartheid in 1994. Zuma loyalists make up the strongest faction opposed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

William Gumede, a professor in governance at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the chaos was likely to cost the ANC in lost votes. Local government elections are set for October.

“Black people lost the most. Small and medium-sized businesses were affected, with mainly Black employees without work,” he said. “So, you can imagine the anger towards the ANC among many former supporters.”

The unrest has also disrupted hospitals struggling to cope with a third wave of COVID-19. They say they are running out of oxygen and drugs, most of which are imported through Durban. Some vaccination centres have been forced to shut.

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