Crowds looted shops and offices in South Africa on Wednesday, defying government calls to end a week of violence that has killed more than 70 people and wrecked hundreds of businesses.
The unrest, the worst in South Africa for years, also disrupted hospitals struggling to cope with a third wave of COVID-19 and forced the closure of a refinery.
Protests triggered by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma for failing to appear at a corruption inquiry last week have widened into looting and an outpouring of general anger over the hardship and inequality that persist 27 years after the end of apartheid.
Shopping malls and warehouses have been ransacked or set ablaze in several cities, mostly in Zuma’s home in KwaZulu-Natal province, and the financial and economic center Johannesburg and surrounding Gauteng province.
Overnight it spread to two other provinces – Mpumalanga, just east of Gauteng, and Northern Cape, police said.
A Reuters photographer saw several shops being looted in the town of Hammersdale, Kwazulu-Natal, on Wednesday. Local TV stations meanwhile showed more looting of shops in South Africa’s largest township Soweto, and in the Indian Ocean port city of Durban.
Soldiers have been sent onto the streets to help outnumbered police contain the unrest and order was being restored in some places on Wednesday, such as the northern Johannesburg township of Alexandra, local TV reported.
The National Hospital Network (NHN), representing 241 public hospitals already under strain from Africa’s worst COVID-19 epidemic, said it was running out of oxygen and drugs, most of which are imported through Durban, as well as food.
“The impact of the looting and destruction is having dire consequences on hospitals,” the NHN said.
“And the epicentre of the pandemic is within the affected provinces currently under siege.” Staff in affected areas were unable to get to work, it said, worsening shortages caused by a third wave of infections.
As authorities in Durban seemed powerless to stop looting, vigilantes armed with guns, many of them from South Africa’s white minority, blocked off streets to prevent further looting, Reuters TV footage showed. One man shouted “go home and protect your homes”.
Other residents gathered outside supermarkets waiting for them to open so they could stock up on essentials.
The poverty and inequality fuelling the unrest has been compounded by severe social and economic restrictions aimed at curbing COVID-19. The United Nations in South Africa expressed concern that disruptions to transport for workers from the riots would exacerbate joblessness, poverty and inequality.
South Africa’s largest refinery SAPREF in Durban has been temporarily shut down, an industry official said on Wednesday.
The rand hovered around three-month lows in early trade on Wednesday, a retreat for what had been one of the best performing emerging market currencies during the pandemic. Government bonds were slightly weaker.
The mayor of Ethekwini, the municipality that includes Durban, estimated that 15 billion rand ($1.09 billion) had been lost in damage to property and another billion in loss of stock.
Some 40,000 businesses had been hit by the unrest, he said.
“A large portion of these may never recover,” he told reporters on Wednesday, which put almost 130,000 jobs at risk.
Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying a court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level looting during his nine years in office until 2018.
He also faces trial in a separate case on charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering. The former president pleaded not guilty in court in May. His foundation said on Tuesday that violence would continue until his release.
The national prosecuting authority has said it will punish those caught looting or destroying property, a threat that so far has done little to deter them. Security forces say they have arrested more than 1,200 people.
Though triggered by Zuma’s jailing, the unrest reflects growing frustration at failures by the ruling African National Congress to address inequality decades after the end of white minority rule in 1994 ushered in democracy.
Roughly half the population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest government figures from 2015, and growing joblessness since the pandemic has left many desperate. Unemployment stood at a new record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021.
($1 = 14.7161 rand)