Stores and warehouses in South Africa were hit by looters on Tuesday for a fifth day running despite a move by President Cyril Ramaphosa to deploy troops in a bid to quell unrest that has claimed 72 lives.
As large-scale pillaging erupted in the economic capital of Johannesburg and southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, the crisis burst into the political arena, where South Africa’s main opposition accused radicals of stoking the unrest.
The armed forces were sending 2,500 soldiers to help the police, who have been utterly overwhelmed.
But these numbers are dwarfed by the more than 70,000 troops deployed to enforce last year’s coronavirus lockdown, and only handful of soldiers were seen at some shopping centres.
The raging unrest first erupted last Friday after former president Jacob Zuma started serving a 15-month term for contempt after snubbing a probe into the corruption that stained his nine years in power.
By the weekend it started spreading to Gauteng province.
“The total number of people who have lost their lives since the beginning of these protests …has risen to 72,” police said in a statement late Tuesday.
Most of the deaths, the forces, said “relate to stampedes that occurred during incidents of looting of shops”.
Others were linked to shooting and explosions of bank automatic cash machines.
With the recent deployment of soldiers, police said “more boots have been on the ground”.
The number of arrests have risen to 1,234, although many thousands have been involved in the ransacking sprees.
Earlier TV footage showed dozens of women, some wearing their dressing gowns, men and even children strolling into a butcher’s cold store in Soweto, coming out balancing heavy boxes of frozen meat on their shoulders or heads.
Police showed up three hours later, and fired rubber bullets and soldiers followed much later.
In Alexandra township north of Johannesburg, hundreds of people streamed in and out of a shopping mall, freely picking up groceries.
In Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal’s capital, people hauled boxed refrigerators through bushes to a long line of cars that were parked along a highway.
In Durban, aerial footage showed hundreds of people looting a large shopping centre and carting off huge boxes of goods.
A woman was seen throwing her young baby from the first floor of a building in bid to save her from fire after retail shops below her block of apartments, was set on fire in downtown Durban. The child safely landed in the hands of a group of people on the street.
In his nationwide address Monday night, Ramaphosa lashed “opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft.”
“The path of violence, of looting and anarchy, leads only to more violence and devastation,” Ramaphosa said.
But the crisis took a political twist on Tuesday as the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, announced it would file criminal charges on Wednesday against Zuma’s children and the leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema.
In a statement, the party accused them of using “social media to express comments which appear to encourage and incite the violence and looting.”
Once dubbed the “Teflon president,” Zuma was handed the jail term on June 29 by the Constitutional Court for bucking an order to appear before a commission probing the graft that proliferated under his nine years in power.
He started serving the jail term on Thursday after handing himself in to authorities as a deadline for his surrender loomed.
He is seeking to have the ruling against him set aside. The Constitutional Court has reserved its judgement on his application to rescind its ruling.
Zuma, 79, is a former anti-apartheid fighter who spent 10 years in jail in the notorious Robben Island jail off Cape Town.
He rose in democratic South Africa to vice president and then president, before being ousted by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2018 as graft scandals proliferated.
But he remains popular among many poor South Africans, especially grassroots members of the ANC, who portray him as a defender of the disadvantaged.
South Africa, Africa’s most industrialised country, is deep in an economic malaise, with cripplingly high levels of unemployment. Economic activity had already been badly affected by restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus.