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After a week of looting and violence in South Africa, what’s happening?

What started as protests over the jail sentence of a former president quickly escalated into looting sprees. It’s the country’s worst violence in decades

SHARE After a week of looting and violence in South Africa, what’s happening?
People make their way from a shopping mall carrying goods in Durban, South Africa.

People make their way from a shopping mall carrying goods in Durban, South Africa, on Tuesday July 13, 2021, as ongoing looting and violence continues.

Associated Press

Violence and looting broke out in South Africa July 8 when the country’s former president and freedom fighter, Jacob Zuma, was arrested and jailed. The violence has quickly escalated and broadened, reported Reuters.

  • Looting sprees, stampedes and riots have left more than 117 people dead across two provinces as of July 16, per The Guardian.
  • On July 12, the South African government deployed 2,500 troops to contain the situation, The Associated Press reported. But these forces couldn’t contain the violence.
  • As of July 15, the government is planning to deploy 25,000 troops to stop the looting, reported BBC.
  • By July 16, the army rollout had 10,000 soldiers on the streets and had made substantial progress toward securing calm, per The Guardian.
  • Some of the lootings have destroyed clinics and COVID-19 vaccination sites, according to The Guardian.

On July 12, the president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, called for people to “stand against violence,” per the BBC. The recent violence is the worst in decades and is “unprecedented” since the end of the apartheid regime and transition to democracy, reported The Guardian.

  • Ramaphosa’s calls for an end to the violence previously went ignored, reported the BBC.

How bad is the looting?

The looting has continued unabated for a week, ABC News reported. Rioters have looted, ransacked and burned buildings in two South African provinces: KwaZulu-Natal, the home state of former president Zuma, and Gauteng, the county’s economic powerhouse and home to the capital city, Reuters reported.

  • By July 16, more than 800 retails stores and shopping malls had been looted, reported The Guardian. Restaurants and liquor stores were ransacked, ATMs were broken into and clothing stores were destroyed.
  • Early estimates say that the stolen and damaged goods were worth anywhere from $400 million and $1 billion in total, per The Guardian.
  • Rioters have burned down buildings, looted major warehouses and blocked key highways with burned-out trucks and cars, the BBC reported.
  • Looters have also attacked communications infrastructure, chemical plants and railways, per The Guardian.
  • The violence has affected both large cities and small towns, BBC said.

Looters have also attacked medical facilities. Some COVID-19 vaccination sites reported being “destroyed and looted,” per the BBC. Ambulances have been attacked and even a blood bank was robbed.

  • Ministers warned that if the looting does not stop, people may begin to run out of essential basic supplies and the country’s COVID-19 response efforts will suffer.
  • Now, racial tensions have begun to flare between Indian communities in South Africa and Black South Africans, reported ABC News.

Residents in these areas have been forced to remain at home. According to local news sites per the BBC, some people have formed “defense squads” to protect their neighborhoods, homes and businesses from being attacked. These private residents, armed with “shotguns, pistols, garden spades and machetes” are the last defense against looters in many areas, the BBC reported.

Why is there unrest and looting in South Africa?

Protests initially started in response to the arrest and jailing of Zuma. However, the protests became violent and quickly spread to areas where Zuma’s fate is largely “irrelevant,” reported Africa News.

  • The violence has become generalized anger over the inequalities that persist 27 years after the end of apartheid rule in South Africa, said Reuters.

“The deteriorating situation pointed to wider problems and unfulfilled expectations that followed the end of white minority rule in 1994,” according to Reuters. “The economy is struggling to emerge from the damage wrought by Africa’s worst COVID-19 epidemic, with authorities repeatedly imposing restrictions on businesses.”

Who is ex-president Jacob Zuma? Why was he jailed?

Zuma is a former freedom fighter who opposed the apartheid regime. From 2009 to 2018, he led the country as president, per the AP. By 2018, Zuma had numerous allegations of corruption against him and he was ousted by the current president, Ramaphosa.

  • Recently, Zuma has been under investigation for high-level corruption involving a $5 billion arms deal from the 1990s, per the BBC.
  • Last month, Zuma refused to provide evidence required by constitutional court order, reported Reuters.
  • He was given a 15-month sentence for contempt of court and was jailed last week, per the BBC.

Zuma and his supporters have repeatedly denied his allegations of corruption, saying that he is “the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents,” per The Guardian.

  • The case is considered a landmark for South Africa, a test of the country’s democratic rule of law and a victory for Ramaphosa, reported The Guardian.

What happens now?

The police and army have made substantial progress toward getting the violence under control. Security forces have secured an “uneasy calm” in the Gauteng province but violence continues in the epicenter of KwaZulu-Natal, reported the AP.

  • The military has reopened a key highway into Durban, one of the nation’s biggest ports and the epicenter of the violence in KwaZulu-Natal, per the AP.
  • Officials expect that they will be able to restore order in KwaZulu-Natal and bring an end to the violence within a few days, according to the AP.

Throughout the violence, the government has refused to declare a state of emergency, according to the BBC.

  • “We are confident our law enforcement agencies are able to do their job successfully,” said Police Minister Bheki Cele last weekend, according to The Guardian. “The current situation on the ground is under strong surveillance and we will ensure it will not deteriorate further.”
  • Initially, this was not been the case as looting has continued unabated for a week, ABC News reported.

Officials are concerned that declaring a state of emergency or responding with too much military force could further provoke Zuma’s supporters. Rioters may view this response as a government crackdown, according to Reuters.

  • Ramaphosa addressed the nation on July 12, saying “this is not who we are as South Africans, this is not us,” reported Africa News.
  • “It is, therefore, a matter of vital importance that we restore calm and stability to all parts of the country without any delay,” he said per Africa News.

On July 15, the South African government planned to deploy 25,000 troops to stop the looting. This is the largest deployment of soldiers in South Africa since the end of white minority rule in 1994, reported ABC News.

  • Based on the recent progress toward stability, it’s unclear if this many soldiers are needed or will end up being deployed.