'People are in a state of panic': defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula

Members of the South African Defence Force patrol through a looted mall in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Calm was restored to the area following the deployment of the army.
Members of the South African Defence Force patrol through a looted mall in Alexandra, Johannesburg. Calm was restored to the area following the deployment of the army.
Image: Alaister Russell/The Sunday Times

Deadly protests that erupted in SA after former president Jacob Zuma’s jailing showed no signs of letting up on Tuesday, even as the authorities pledged to clamp down on the violence and the army was deployed to help the police keep it in check.

Hundreds of stores in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which account for about half the nation’s economic output, were looted and major highways have been blocked. The government says 10 people have died but KwaZulu-Natal premier Sihle Zikalala put the toll at 26 in his province alone and his Gauteng counterpart David Makhura said there’d been 19 fatalities in his jurisdiction, including 10 that occurred during a stampede.

Rioting continued on Tuesday in several Gauteng townships, including Alexandra, Diepsloot, Vosloorus and Mamelodi, though calm prevailed in Johannesburg’s city centre, which bore the brunt of the violence on Monday.

Broadcaster eNCA screened live pictures of a mob looting a warehouse complex near Durban in KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday, and people lining up in vehicles to ferry away appliances they’d stolen.

The government halted the issuing of coronavirus vaccines throughout KwaZulu-Natal and in parts of Gauteng because it didn’t want to place staff or recipients at risk, said Nicholas Crisp, a consultant to the health department who is helping oversee the inoculation programme.

Stores were also targeted in East London in the Eastern Cape, though demonstrations there weren’t as bad as in other areas, the provincial government’s acting spokesperson Mxolisi Spondo said by phone. Looting also occurred in one town in Mpumalanga. No incidents were reported in the other five provinces, but authorities there remained on high alert.

“Yes, the situation looks like it’s out of hand, yes, people are in a state of panic,” defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula told reporters in Pretoria. “We are all concerned about what is happening.”

Police minister Bheki Cele said 304 people had been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal and another 453 in Gauteng, and additional personnel had been sent to protest hotspots. More than 2,500 soldiers are assisting the police restore order.

“We cannot allow anyone to make a mockery of our democratic state and we have instructed the law-enforcement agencies to double their efforts to stop the violence and to increase deployment on the ground,” Cele said.

While the turmoil was triggered by Zuma’s incarceration after his conviction on contempt of court charges, the government says criminal elements are exploiting the instability to enrich themselves. Allegations that former members of the intelligence agencies with links to Zuma were instigating the violence are still being investigated, state security minister Ayanda Dlodlo said.

The unrest has dented business confidence and unnerved investors. The rand fell as much as 1.9% against the dollar to 14.6742 on Tuesday, the lowest level since March 31, after declining 1.3% on Monday.

Vaccinations disrupted

President Cyril Ramaphosa warned in a televised address Monday night that the turmoil posed a threat to food security and was frustrating efforts to bring the coronavirus under control at a time when the country is experiencing a third wave of infections.

The health department said 146,577 Covid-19 shots were issued in the 24 hours to 5pm on Monday, compared with more than 191,000 late last week.

The country’s four biggest banks closed branches in violence-hit areas, fuel and chemical producer Sasol said its road and rail deliveries had been disrupted, and retailers and telecommunications companies shut outlets.

State power utility Eskom said its plants and coal supply hadn’t been affected. It suspended some operations as a precautionary measure on Sunday, but resumed them during daylight hours on Tuesday.

Aleix Montana, Africa analyst at risk-intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft, expects the civil unrest to intensify over the next few days.

“Zuma’s imprisonment was the spark that ignited the protests but underlying issues such as rampant unemployment, widespread inequality and discontent with Covid-19 related restrictions are the powder keg,” Montana said.

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