As South Africa’s Constitutional Court heard arguments from lawyers representing former South African president Jacob Zuma, who are fighting for his release from jail, what began as a spate of sporadic protests demanding his release has turned into violence, looting and arson in parts of KwaZulu-Natal province and urban centres in greater Johannesburg.
But on the streets of Durban, there were scenes of chaos as semi-organised groups raided shop after shop in the port city, leaving them stripped of all contents.
Elsewhere, a major shopping centre was set ablaze and the key inland road route linking Durban to Johannesburg was closed for a second time in two days due to protests which police suspect are co-ordinated to stretch them as thin on the ground as possible.
In response, the SA National Defence Force was deployed in the worst-hit areas in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, providing back-up for hard-pressed police.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking to the nation Sunday evening, warned of what he termed as “ethnic mobilisation”, similar to that which was last seen in the early 1990s.
He said the looting, stoning of traffic on roads and highways and destruction of property “will not be tolerate”, adding that all responsible would be arrested.
By midday Monday, police reported over 200 arrests.
Call for calm
Less than 12 hours after Ramaphosa called for calm, the situation on the ground in Durban as well as in some areas around Johannesburg had morphed into full-scale attacks on businesses.
Police and security analysts said the spiralling violence, which has claimed 6 lives so far, had “morphed” into “opportunistic criminality”.
In particular, the most recent violence of late Sunday and early Monday featured targeted attacks on liquor outlets as well as clothing and electronic appliance shops.
There have been reports that some arrested looters said they were angered by Sunday night’s announcement by Ramaphosa and his Covid-19 taskforce that liquor sales would continue to be banned for a further two weeks during the latest Delta-variant-driven wave of coronavirus infections.
That ban was continued in order to keep open hospital beds that would otherwise be filled with alcohol-related injuries, explained Ramaphosa.
Police spokesmen reported that many looters were armed and that officers were shot at.
In Vosloorus, near Johannesburg, a mall was looted and torched a short distance from a large ‘hostel’. Over the weekend there were numerous instances of vehicles being stoned and torched, and of highway closures, the latter continuing Monday on at least two major arterials running through KwaZulu-Natal.
Damage and losses by early Monday were already being estimated at tens of millions of dollars, with financial and other markets moving downward in reaction.
Police had called for reinforcements after attempts to quell some of the looting outbreaks had exhausted their ammunition, leaving units no choice but to stand by and watch looters escape with stolen goods.
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