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Illustration by Security Management

Protests Escalate into Looting, Violence in South Africa

Political protests against the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma have degraded into street violence and looting in parts of South Africa this week. On Tuesday, the death toll from rioting rose to 72, with some people being trampled to death during looting at stores, according to the Associated Press.

Demonstrations originally began along ethnic lines, with protesters from the Zulu nation claiming an attack on Zuma—who was held in contempt of court and began serving a 15-month prison sentence on 7 July—is tantamount to an attack on them, the BBC reported. However, protests against his arrest deteriorated. Political chanting or calls to action have been absent from most recent events of protest, looting, and violence.

While many blame criminal elements for the violence and theft, it is difficult to ignore some of the economic and social elements behind malcontent in the country. South Africa’s unemployment level reached a record 32.6 percent in the first three months of 2021; for people 15 to 34 years old, unemployment hit 46.3 percent. More than half of the 60 million people in South Africa are living in poverty, according to the World Bank Group. These stressors have propelled the protests into wider demonstrations and riots.

In the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, chaotic stampedes occurred as people stole food, electronics, liquor, and clothing from stores. Other deaths were caused during explosions when people tried to break into ATMs, and there were multiple shootings, the AP reported. More than 600 stores have been looted. Buildings and trucks were set on fire. A community radio station was ransacked, and equipment worth 5 million rand ($350,000) was stolen. COVID-19 vaccination centers were forced to close down.

More than 1,200 people have been arrested in connection to the chaos so far, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered military units to support police forces in affected areas, The Washington Post reported. So far, however, the additional forces have not been able to quell the unrest. At a mall in Soweto on Tuesday, police and security forces fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to push back rioters, who continued to enter shops through delivery entrances, emergency exits, and roof access, according to the AP.