Security forces in South Africa are struggling to contain spreading unrest, as the death toll has risen to at least 26 after violent scenes that President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted have “rarely [been] seen before in the history of our democracy”.
Unrest in South Africa triggered by the jailing of its former president Jacob Zuma has intensified, despite calls for calm from senior officials and the deployment of thousands of soldiers to the streets to reinforce struggling police.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has described the deadly violence and protests as unprecedented in the 27 years since the end of the apartheid regime in the country.
The unrest has so far been limited to the country’s two most densely populated provinces, Gauteng, where Johannesburg, the country’s largest city and economic powerhouse is located, and KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province. Several of South Africa’s major highways were blocked.
A police helicopter hovered over the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto, where looters made off with giant TV sets, microwave ovens, clothes, and linen. Others drove cars and pickup trucks to stores to help remove items.
Many businesses and malls were shuttered as a precaution while a number of false alarms led to the panicked evacuation of several malls in Johannesburg and elsewhere.
The center of the unrest is Zuma’s home region, KwaZulu-Natal. In its capital, Pietermaritzburg, smoke billowed from the roof of a large shopping mall on Monday. Banks, shops, and fuel stations in the city were shut. In the center of Durban, the largest city in KwaZulu-Natal, there were widespread break-ins, and paramedics were attacked.
South Africa’s high joblessness and sharp post-apartheid economic divisions provide a tinderbox for violence, made worse by the pandemic pushing many even further below the poverty line. An already slow pace of vaccinations has ground to a halt as medical centers have been forced to shut their doors. Official unemployment was nearly 33 percent in the first three months of this year. The rand slid by more than 1 percent on Tuesday to 14.59 to the US dollar as traders bet that the unrest would undermine the country’s economic recovery. The currency is down 3 percent so far this week at its weakest level since early April.
One South African TV station carried live images of looters running away from a police van as officers looked on. “This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew: that the level of unemployment, poverty, and inequality in our society is unsustainable,” said Ramaphosa. As he was speaking late on Monday, South African television carried a split-screen image of looters breaking into a blood bank.