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Why is South Africa facing its worst level of unrest since the 1990s?

At least 72 people have died and over 1,200 have been arrested.

south-africa-zuma-riots People run for cover as police officers fire rubber bullets amid looting at Letsoho Shopping Centre, east of Johannesburg. Source: Themba Hadebe

SOUTH AFRICA IS facing its most serious crisis since the end of the apartheid era as a wave of unrest has left dozens of people dead, thousands more injured and hundreds behind bars.

Soldiers have been deployed to the streets to support buckling police forces as protests, sparked by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, have spiralled into six days of looting and rioting.

The death toll from the unrest has mounted at a staggering rate, with 72 deaths officially recorded. Today marks the sixth consecutive day of violent demonstrations, prompting fears of fuel and food shortages.

What kick started the violence?

The unrest was triggered last Friday as the detention of Zuma unleashed a flood of protests that quickly turned violent.

The epicentre of the unrest is in the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home region, and Gauteng, South Africa’s economic hub.

Shops, malls and fuel stations have been ransacked in several cities including Pietermaritzburg, Durban and Johannesburg.

south-africa-zuma-riots Looters carry items at Letsoho Shopping Centre in Katlehong. Source: Themba Hadebe

What’s happening?

Rioting and looting have been widespread in the two provinces, reflecting South Africa’s severe levels of poverty and catastrophic unemployment rates.

Overwhelmed police are facing mobs who have ransacked stores, carting away anything from crates of alcohol to beds, refrigerators and bath tubs.

Ten people were killed during a crowd crush at a mall while others were reported to have died when a stack of goods in a warehouse collapsed.

In one extraordinary scene in Durban, a mother dropped her toddler from a burning building to a group of people below, who caught her. The building was allegedly set on fire by looters, according to the BBC.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said the deadly unrest gripping the country is “unprecedented” in post-apartheid South Africa.

In a nationwide address night, Ramaphosa lashed “opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft.”

“Parts of the country 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,” he added.

What happened with Zuma?

Once dubbed the “Teflon president”, Zuma was handed the jail term at the end of June for failing to comply with an order to appear before a commission probing corruption.

On Friday he lost a petition at the Pietermaritzburg High Court to have his case thrown out. An anti-graft panel is probing the massive siphoning off of state assets that occurred during Zuma’s 2009-2018 presidency.

zuma Former president Jacob Zuma gestures as he addresses the press at his home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal province. Source: Shiraaz Mohamed/AP

Zuma testified just once, in July 2019, and then swiftly withdrew his cooperation.

Under the terms of his sentence, the ex-president is eligible for parole in less than four months.

He is due back in court on 19 July for a separate case where he faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering in an arms procurement scandal dating to 1999, when he was vice president.

The 79-year-old is a former anti-apartheid fighter who spent 10 years in jail in the notorious Robben Island jail off Cape Town.

Despite the allegations, he remains popular among many poor South Africans, especially grassroots members of the African National Congress (ANC), who portray him as a defender of the disadvantaged.

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Food and fuel shortages

Nearly a week of looting has had a severe impact on supply chains and prompted fears of food and fuel shortages. 

There have been 72 officially confirmed deaths and more than 1,200 arrests.

Today, State-owned logistics operator, Transnet, declared a “force majeure” – an emergency beyond its control – on a key rail line that links Johannesburg to the coast because the “unrest and subsequent closure of roads has meant employees are not able to report for duty”.

south-africa-zuma-riots A security person apprehends looters inside a store in Vosloorus near Johannesburg. Source: Themba Hadebe

In Durban, people started queuing outside food stores and at fuel stations as early as 4am when the Covid night curfew ends.

Last night, the country’s largest refinery SAPREF also declared “force majeure” and shuttered its plant in Durban, responsible for a third of South Africa’s fuel supply.

In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, there are reports of bread being sold from a delivery truck outside a major shopping mall as stores have either been looted or shut due to fears of vandalism.

Christo van der Rheede, executive director of the largest farmers’ organisation, AgriSA, said producers were struggling to get their crops to market because of the logistical “shambles”.

“We need the restoration of law and order as soon as possible, because we are going to have a massive humanitarian crisis,” van der Rheede said.

With reporting by AFP

About the author:

Céimin Burke

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