Protests triggered by last week’s arrest of former South African President Jacob Zuma have claimed six lives, seen scores of business looted and weakened the currency, with the police struggling to contain escalating violence.
The riots which began in KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma’s home base spread to the nation’s economic hub, Gauteng over the weekend shuttering businesses and halting transport networks. Authorities arrested more than 200 people and worked to disperse hundreds of protesters as businesses across the two affected regions were hit by looting, police said in a statement on Sunday.
Violence began with the closure of a key trade route in the country’s eastern KwaZulu-Natal after trucks were torched on Friday night. That transformed into looting of malls, local media reported. Standard Bank Group Ltd., Africa’s biggest lender, shut its branches in the nation’s business hub of Johannesburg in Gauteng province, amid reports of looting in parts of the city.
South Africa said it will deploy its army to help police quell the violence, among the worst the nation has seen since the end of white minority rule in 1994, while President Cyril Ramaphosa warned that all rioters will be prosecuted. The admonishing failed to stem the tumult that began after Zuma turned himself in to authorities on July 7. The former president was sentenced to 15 months in jail for defying a court order to testify at a graft inquiry. He denies any wrongdoing.
The violence also follows an extension of a lockdown that’s hurting businesses and has robbed many people of livelihood in a nation with an unemployment rate of 32.6%.
‘’South Africa has been sitting on a powder keg for some time,” Mervyn Abrahams, program coordinator for the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice Dignity Programme said by phone from Durban. Joblessness, inflation, and the lockdown means “the rioting and looting is a prime way for many criminal elements to take advantage of the situation under the banner of Free Zuma whether they believe in it or not,” he said.
The Constitutional Court began a sitting on Monday to hear Zuma’s application to have his conviction and sentencing overturned. Police spokespeople in KwaZulu-Natal didn’t respond to calls.
“While there are those who may be hurt and angry at this moment, there can never be any justification for such violent, destructive and disruptive actions,” Ramaphosa said in a televised speech on Sunday. “It is a matter of concern to all South Africans that some of these acts of violence are based on ethnic mobilisation.
South Africa’s rand weakened 1.6% to R14.45 the dollar at 12:36 p.m. in Johannesburg, the most since June 18 as the violence spread.
Residents in cities of KwaZulu-Natal reported sounds of shooting and malls being torched. Meanwhile, parts of the N3 Toll Route, which links the port city of Durban with Gauteng province, have reopened, yet access to the M2 highway in Johannesburg is restricted in some areas after violence erupted in the city overnight.
In Gauteng, that includes the city of Johannesburg, police are investigating the deaths of four people, while in KwaZulu-Natal authorities were probing the killing of two people, according to a statement by the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure.
“In Gauteng the hotspots are in the Johannesburg inner-city and parts in and around the central business district,” Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department spokesman Xolani Fihla said by phone. “There’s been reports of looting in Soweto, sporadic and not concentrated in one specific area.”
Even as protests flared, police were deployed along major routes to help enforce rules around gatherings to contain the spread of the coronavirus.