South Africa combats unrest after ex-leader’s imprisonment

JOHANNESBURG — South African police and the army struggled to bring order Wednesday to impoverished areas of South Africa rocked by weeklong unrest and days of looting sparked by the imprisonment last week of ex-President Jacob Zuma.

More than 200 violent incidents happened in poor areas of the Kwa-Zulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces overnight, the government said Wednesday, a week after the protests started.

The deployment of army soldiers to assist police has been doubled to 5,000 after the days of rioting in which more than 72 people have been killed and 1,234 arrested, according to police. Many of the deaths were caused by chaotic stampedes as thousands of people ransacked shops, stealing food, electrical appliances, liquor and clothes, police Maj. Gen. Mathapelo Peters said.

The violence erupted last week after Zuma began serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court for refusing to comply with a court order to testify at a state-backed inquiry investigating allegations of corruption while he was president from 2009 to 2018.

The protests in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu-Natal provinces escalated into a spree of theft in township areas, although it has not spread to South Africa’s other seven provinces, where police are on alert.

A tense order appeared to have been achieved Wednesday by security forces in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province which includes the largest city, Johannesburg.

“I can confirm that currently it’s calm in Gauteng,” said army Col. Mmathapelo Maine, as soldiers brandishing rifles stood by, protecting the large Maponya mall in Soweto.

“We have control of the situation and this is with the cooperation of the community,” said Maine.

Across the street scores of residents lined up to buy bread from a truck that was selling directly to people instead of delivering to shops that had been closed.

Nearby, at the Diepkloof shopping center, a few business owners surveyed the damage.

“It’s just like being raped,” said Thandi Johnson, looking at her empty Soweto shop, TWJ Events Supply, that had been looted the day before by rioters. “And then you see the rapist walking past you,” she said gesturing toward residents walking by.

“Twelve years I’ve been working on this business and it’s destroyed in one day,” she said, shaking with anger, looking at where she had sold balloons and decorations for children’s parties.

“They pushed me aside,” she said of the rioters. “I pleaded with them that I am one of them, but they just came in and took everything. Look!” she said pointing to the bare shelves. “I didn’t come here by train, I’m a Sowetan! I’m born here.”

Johnson said she is worried that insurance will not cover her losses on the grounds that she was not covered for political violence. “I’ll be finished,” she said.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met online Wednesday with the leaders of political parties represented in the National Assembly to urge all to work together to restore order.

Ramaphosa has had consultations over the past two days “with different sectors of society to develop a society-wide response to the current outbreaks of public violence and economic damage,” said Tyrone Seale, the president’s acting spokesman.

“The president said the destruction witnessed by the nation hurt all South Africans, not only those in the affected areas,” said Seale. “And it hurt the poor, the elderly and the vulnerable the most.”