Parts of South Africa “are reeling from several days and nights of public violence, destruction of property and looting of the sort rarely seen before in the history of our democracy” President Cyril Ramaphosa conceded in a live address to the nation on Monday night.
However, he reiterated that those involved in any criminal activity linked to the riots in several parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng would face the full might of the law.
He also confirmed that the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is being deployed in the two provinces, which together account for over half of the country’s GDP.
“Together, we will defeat those who seek to destabilise our country, who seek to reverse the gains we have made. We will stand as one people, united against violence, unanimous in our commitment to peace and to the rule of law,” said Ramaphosa.
His urgent address came in the wake of escalating riots in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which have been linked to anger around the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma last week.
However, concerns have been raised that criminal elements and syndicates are taking advantage of the situation, with widespread looting in KwaZulu-Natal on Monday which also saw at least two shopping centres in the province (the privately owned Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg and JSE-listed SA Corporate Real Estate Fund’s Springfield Value Centre in Durban) set alight.
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The financial toll of the destruction to property is not yet known, with hundreds of shops and smaller retail centres across KZN and in parts of Gauteng being looted and vandalised. However, this is likely to run into at least a few billion rand, if one considers the massive claims for insurers, in addition to lost business as several major shopping centres, factories and other businesses being forced to effectively lockdown in Durban, Pietermaritzburg and in the Johannesburg CBD.
SA’s busiest national highway, the N3 from the Port of Durban to Gauteng, was closed for much of Monday after trucks at Mooi River toll plaza were torched and targeted since Saturday.
“Even as we know the high cost of this violence to property, to livelihoods and to businesses, the loss of human life is the greatest cost of all,” said Ramaphosa.
“Many South Africans are at this hour counting the cost to their livelihoods and property, to their shops and businesses, to their safety and security.”
“Many more South Africans are feeling anxious and afraid,” the president noted.
Ramaphosa did not refer directly to Zuma’s arrest prompting the unrest, however he highlighted that “some [people] have characterised these [violent] actions as a form of political protest”.
“This violence may indeed have its roots in the pronouncements and activities of individuals with a political purpose, and in expressions of frustration and anger,” he noted.
“At the beginning of this unrest, there may have been some people who sought to agitate for violence and disorder along ethnic lines. We know that the majority of our people have out of principle refused to be mobilised along these lines,” he said.
“However, what we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft,” he added.
“There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the violence and destruction that we have seen in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng,” stressed the president.
“Although these may be opportunistic acts of looting driven by hardship and poverty, the poor and marginalised bear the ultimate brunt of the destruction,” he also pointed out.
Ramaphosa meanwhile said that law enforcement agencies had arrested 166 suspects in KwaZulu-Natal and 323 suspects in Gauteng in relation to the riots and looting.
Read: Pro-Zuma protests spread to Johannesburg
However, he conceded that the violence is continuing in many areas and emphasised that it was “of vital importance” to “restore calm and stability to all parts of the country without delay”.
The president has heeded calls from the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry and other organisations to deploy the SANDF in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng to help deal with the unrest. Other organised business bodies such as Business Unity South Africa (Busa) and the South African Property Owners Association (Sapoa) welcomed the SANDF move.
“We are mobilising all available resources and capabilities to restore order. As the Commander-in-Chief of the South African Defence Force, I have today authorised the deployment of Defence Force personnel in support of the operations of the South African Police Service,” said Ramaphosa.
“The National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure – known as NatJOINTS – has intensified deployments in all the affected areas in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.”
“The South African Police Service is putting measures in place to call up operational members from leave and rest-days to increase the presence of law enforcement personnel on the ground,” he added.
“The NatJOINTS is receiving support from the Intelligence Coordinating Committee, comprising of SAPS Crime Intelligence, Defence Intelligence and State Security. In addition to greater visibility and an intelligence-driven presence in potential hotspots, we will be prioritising the prosecution of suspects alleged to be involved in this violence,” he noted.
Ramaphosa further pointed out that the National Security Council, which he chairs as Commander-in-Chief, will be meeting twice a day to coordinate “all measures necessary to restore stability”.
He however gave no indication of the scale of the SANDF’s deployment of forces in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Read: Stores close across SA as violent riots intensify
The president called on religious leaders, traditional leaders, trade unions, businesses, community organisations, political parties and NGOs to work together in addressing the situation.
He said government ministers and senior officials in the economic and the security clusters had already met with Busa.
Meanwhile, Busa described the rioting and looting as a state of anarchy.
“This anarchy has caused significant economic damage and costs… The ongoing violence and destruction of property continues to cause severe losses to the economy,” it said in a statement.
“The anarchy started after the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, as ordered by the Constitutional Court. Busa notes this, but the critical issue for us is that relatively small groups of people are destroying property, endangering lives, and holding the country hostage,” the organisation added.
“This cannot be tolerated in a constitutional democracy, in which the preservation of law and order and the protection of people’s rights are paramount,” said Busa.
Neil Gopal CEO of Sapoa and a board member of Busa called for “punitive and decisive action” against those looting or destroying property.
“We strongly condemn the incidents of looting and malicious damage to retail property centres,” he said.
“Clearly our police services are being overwhelmed and are ill-equipped to deal with the magnitude and nature of the violence and destruction that is happening around us… We are pleased that the Presidency has deployed the SANDF to help curb the situation.”
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