South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a national address on Monday evening that the protests would soon lead to shortages in food and medicine if they didn’t stop, and had already interrupted the country’s vaccination program at a time the government is attempting to ramp up the pace of shots.
Earlier on Monday, the South African military announced it would begin putting troops on the streets of several major cities, including the legislative capital of Johannesburg and the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban, after mass protests brought fires, looting, and several deaths from gunshot wounds.
"The South African National Defence Force has commenced with pre-deployment processes and procedures in line with a request for assistance received... to assist law enforcement agencies deployed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces respectively to quell the unrest that has gripped both Provinces in the last few days," the military said in a statement obtained by AFP.
The size and duration of the deployment will be determined "according to the assessment of the situation on the ground by the police,” the statement adds, noting their missions will be “to provide security and a safe working environment for law enforcement agencies" to do their job.
However, Reuters reported that one of its field reporters had already spotted troops in Pietermaritzburg.
Video from the town on Monday morning showed flames billowing from a shopping mall, and there were widespread reports of looting, fires, and police shooting rifles and tear gas at protesters.
WARNING! The following video is disturbing and may offend sensibilities
Other videos on social media showed at least two bodies in a ditch alongside the road, although it wasn’t clear where the video had been filmed.
In Phoenix, an Indian town between Durban and Pietermaritzburg, residents took up arms and set up roadblocks, shooting several looters dead. A reporter with South African news outlet eNCA reported that “racial discrimination is creeping into the action taken by some residents to ‘protect’ themselves,” although it was unclear who was targeting who.
According to Reuters, at least 219 people have been arrested since the protests broke out on Friday. While they were primarily focused in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, where Zuma is from, protests and looting were also reported in Soweto on the outskirts of Johannesburg, where Reuters saw police shooting at looters with rubber bullets.
Zuma’s Arrest, Economic Malaise
Zuma was taken into custody on Wednesday after handing himself over to serve a 15-month jail sentence for contempt of court. The 79-year-old former president had been called to testify in a state commission probe of alleged corruption during his 2009-18 term, which he refused to do.
On Friday, the Pietermaritzburg High Court rejected his application to overturn the decision, and protests quickly grew, fueled by his supporters who had pledged violence if he were taken into custody.
Saturday morning began with a line of trucks being stopped outside Howick, northwest of Pietermaritzburg, and 20 of them being set on fire.
However, while Zuma’s arrest might have sent people into the streets, the widespread looting points to a much deeper problem: widespread economic malaise has plagued the country through the pandemic, and only grown worse with the latest round of lockdowns.
According to government statistics, in the first quarter of 2021, the unemployment rate in South Africa was 32.6%, but unemployment among 15-34-year-olds was 46.3%. KZN has fared the second-worst among South Africa’s nine provinces, losing 83,000 jobs in that time. The economic standstill has sent South Africans hunting for odd jobs, including fueling a rush on what turned out to be false diamonds in KwaHlathi, a town in northern KZN.
However, an exploding third wave of COVID-19 has sent the country into new lockdowns, and a ban on the sale of alcohol - intended to reduce the pressure on hospitals by limiting trauma patients - has only stirred anger further; liquor stores are among the primary targets of looters, according to reports.
The country has suffered 40% of Africa’s COVID-19 deaths, and less than 5% of the population has been immunized.
However, as protests grew, the left-wing Economic Freedom Fighters party complained of a “media blackout” as South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) provided “close to no coverage” of the demonstrations, they said.
“The SABC has a mandate as a public broadcaster to ensure it reports all news without bias and comprehensively, to ensure that the nation is informed and can draw its own conclusions on matters that confront society,” the EFF statement on Saturday reads.
“The SABC undermines its mandate when it conducts its coverage selectively and raises suspicion that it is assuming a posture similar to captured news entities such as the racist eNCA,” it adds. “The national broadcaster is not an arm of the ruling party and it must never be turned into a public relations entity of the ruling party and its factions. The protests in KwaZulu Natal are of national interest and the SABC must cover them accordingly.”
Ramaphosa rose to power on a pledge to tackle corruption in the African National Congress, and after replacing Zuma as party chief in 2017, the ANC pulled its support in parliament from Zuma and he was forced to resign, with Ramaphosa replacing him as president as well. However, Ramaphosa, a banker, has met his own accusations of graft and corruption, as well.
Zuma’s arrest is widely seen as further widening the split in the ANC, as the two factions vye to claim the legacy of the movement that ended Apartheid white minority rule in 1994.