Crowds clashed with police and returned to looted and torched shops, warehouses and supermarkets in South Africa on Tuesday (13). On the fifth day of widespread violence in the country, the death toll reached at least 45 and more than 750 prisoners.
The acts began last Friday (9), with roadblocks and vehicles set on fire, shortly after former President Jacob Zuma surrendered to authorities and spent his first night in prison. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court for failing to appear at hearings convened by a commission investigating corruption charges against his government.
Political protests, however, took a back seat as a surge of weekend shoplifting and vandalism began to ravage major cities in South Africa.
The current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced Monday evening (12) the sending of troops to help the police, overwhelmed by the disturbances, and “restore order”.
“There is no complaint or no political reason that can justify the violence and destruction,” said the president, who believes that what he sees in the streets are acts of promoting chaos to cover up looting and flights. “The path of violence, pillage and lawlessness only increases violence and devastation.”
Police said they found ten people dead as a crowd fled to a shopping center in Soweto, Gauteng province. This Tuesday morning, dozens of women, men and even children broke into the cold rooms of a wholesale meat chain and fled, carrying cartons of frozen meat.
Research for food indicates that the people of Soweto, living in one of the main symbols of inequality in the country after the end of the racial segregation regime in force in South Africa for almost 50 years, have been one hardest hit by the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Looters have also invaded warehouses and supermarkets in Durban, one of South Africa’s main import and export centers in the east of the country.
Images from local broadcasters and videos shared on social media show crowds filling carts with electronics, clothing and other merchandise. Inside the stores, virtually destroyed, only discarded packaging remained while the shelves were emptied.
Aerial views of the city showed large clouds of black smoke rising from various warehouses, indicating locations where shops had been set on fire.
The number of people killed could be even higher, as figures released by federal government officials do not match regional data. The prime ministers of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng reported 26 and 19 dead in their provinces, respectively, while Police Minister Bheki Cele officially counted ten dead.
“No amount of misfortune or personal circumstances for our people gives anyone the right to loot, vandalize and do whatever they want and break the law,” Cele said, in a speech in which he echoed Ramaphosa’s speech and announced the arrest of 757 people.
According to the minister, the government will act to prevent the escalation of violence from spreading further. Cele also warned people not to “make fun of the democratic state” of South Africa.
At the same press conference, Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula rejected, at least for the moment, the declaration of a state of emergency in the country.
Zuma was ousted from the presidency in 2018, in an action orchestrated by allies of Ramaphosa. The former president has been charged with corruption crimes committed before and during his tenure.
One concerns the so-called “Zondo Commission”, a case in which corruption allegations involving three Indian tycoons – brothers Atul, Ajay and Rajesh Gupta – are being investigated. Zuma denies any wrongdoing, but has so far not cooperated with investigations.
The Gupta brothers, who also deny the allegations, left South Africa after the former president was ousted. In another case, he faces 16 counts of fraud, corruption and organized crime related to the purchase of military equipment from five European companies in 1999, while he was a deputy.
Zuma is alleged to have pocketed more than four million rand (around R $ 1.4 million at the current rate) in bribes paid by French company Thales, one of the groups that won a contract with the South African government valued in more than 3.3 billion US dollars (16.3 billion reais).