JOHANNESBURG – Rioting and looting in South Africa continued Wednesday, raising the death toll to more than 70 as defiant protesters ignored government demands to end violence.
The unrest was sparked last week when former president Jacob Zuma began serving a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court after he failed to attend a hearing to answer questions about corruption allegations.
Protests over Zuma’s arrest quickly evolved into mass civil unrest, the country’s worst in years.
Looters continued to vandalize shopping malls, other retail outlets and businesses in the province of Gauteng, which includes the country’s largest city of Johannesburg. Security forces seemed unable to prevent the looting, which also continued in Zuma’s home province, KwaZulu-Natal and spread overnight to the provinces of Mpumalanga and Northern Cape, according to police.
In the coastal city of Durban, a long line of cars formed outside warehouses full of household appliances, food and other goods. One of the warehouses was on fire, but looters kept streaming in.
The leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, visited Durban to assess the situation.
“It’s actually quite terrifying to see the devastation, the complete destruction,” he said. “Also the despair of many of the communities here who feel completely abandoned by the security services, and who’ve been left to fend for themselves. Bodies are lying in the road. This is clearly a situation that is not under control; it’s not getting any better.”
Free State University chancellor Bonang Mohale had a similar view.
“It’s heartbreaking to see people strolling casually with empty trolleys; when they come back, the trolleys are the size of a triple-story house and they take it to cars that are parked, as if this is normal Sunday afternoon shopping,” he said. “People carrying refrigerators on their heads; an entire cow on their shoulders. Flat screens, everywhere!”
Mohale said the county is now paying for the ruling African National Congress party’s continued protection of corrupt and incompetent leaders.
“Everywhere, for the last 15 years, we see black graduates roaming the streets absolutely hopelessly,” he said. “Inequality has widened. Racism is at an all-time high. Public schooling has collapsed. Public healthcare continues to fail the poor and the vulnerable. What were we expecting?”
Over the past few days, the state has deployed the army in Johannesburg, but there are no soldiers visible at places that continue to be attacked and pillaged in Durban and the nearby city of Pietermaritzburg. Security officials told VOA this is because they’ve received intelligence that mobs are now planning to attack key installations, such as harbors and airports, and the army is guarding those.
Steenhuisen said this is good… but not good enough.
“My real fear is that if we don’t contain the situation here in KwaZulu-Natal, this is going to spread like wildfire around the rest of the country,” he said.
The violence has further strained the country’s hospitals that are grappling with a third wave of COVID-19 infections. The National Hospital Network, which represents 241 public hospitals, said food and supplies of oxygen and drugs were nearing depletion.
The United Nations has voiced concern that transportation disruptions caused by the riots would worsen unemployment, poverty and inequality in the country.
Zuma was convicted of resisting a court order to testify in a state-backed investigation into allegations of corruption during his nine-year term as president that ended in 2018.
Zuma’s lawyer argued Monday before South Africa’s Constitutional Court that Zuma should have his sentence rescinded. Judges on the court said they would consider the arguments and announce their decision at a later date.
Some information for this report came from Reuters and Associated Press.