The South African government has sought to deploy about 25,000 troops to curb unrest, now in its sixth day, amid fears of food and fuel shortages as disruption to farming, manufacturing and oil refining begin to bite.
Seventy-two people have died and more than 1,200 people arrested, according to official figures, since the former president, Jacob Zuma, began a 15-month jail term, sparking protests that swiftly turned violent.
Looting has hit supply chains and transport links especially in the south-eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, affecting goods and services around South Africa.
The government said 208 incidents of looting and vandalism were recorded on Wednesday, as the number of troops deployed doubled to 5,000.
But the defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, later told parliament she had “submitted a request for deployment of plus-minus 25,000” soldiers. Troop deployments are authorised by the president. She did not say when the extra troops would be on the streets.
The government had been under pressure to increase boots on the ground to contain the violence pummelling an already struggling economy.
The country’s consumer goods regulatory body estimated that more than 800 retail shops had been looted.
President Cyril Ramaphosa met leaders of political parties and cautioned that parts of the country “may soon be running short of basic provisions following the extensive disruption of food, fuel and medicine supply chains”.
The state-owned logistics operator Transnet declared a “force majeure” on Wednesday – an emergency beyond its control – on a rail line that links Johannesburg to the coast because of the unrest.
In the port city of Durban, hundreds of people queued outside food stores hours before they opened, as lines of cars also formed outside fuel stations, an AFP photographer reported.
On Tuesday, the country’s largest refinery, Sapref, , responsible for a third of South Africa’s
“It’s inevitable that we will have fuel shortages in the next couple of days or weeks,” the Automobile Association’s Layton Beard said.
In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, bread was being sold from a delivery truck outside a large shopping mall as stores have either been looted or shut due to fears of vandalism.
The lootings have “seriously compromised our energy security and food security,” said Bonang Mohale, chancellor of University of the Free State.
The violence has also disrupted the coronavirus vaccine rollout and delivery of medicines to hospitals, said Mohale, echoing similar reports from hospitals.
South Africa has recorded more than 2.2m infections and is in the midst of a brutal virus third wave.
Christo van der Rheede, executive director of the largest farmers’ organisation, AgriSA, said producers were struggling to get crops to market because of the logistical “shambles”. He warned that if law and order were not restored soon, “we are going to have a massive humanitarian crisis”.
Sugarcane fields were torched in KwaZulu-Natal, the main cane-growing region, while elsewhere cattle were stolen.
Ramaphosa had initially deployed 2,500 troops at the start of the week to help the overwhelmed police force, before plans quickly changed to scale up the numbers to 25,000.
But local people have started forming vigilante groups to protect infrastructure in their neighbourhoods. A group of commuter minibus operators armed themselves with sticks and firearms on Wednesday and violently beat up suspected looters Vosloorus township, south-eastern Johannesburg.
Images of crowds of looters hauling away refrigerators, large televisions, microwave ovens and crates of food and alcohol have been a visceral shock for many South Africans.
The new king of the Zulu community, Misuzulu Zulu, said violence had brought “great shame” on his people. “This chaos is destroying the economy, and it is the poor who will suffer the most,” warned the monarch, who has moral influence over Zulus but no executive powers.
“This is unprecedented economic damage that is taking place,” Mohale agreed.
The pillaging swiftly followed protests over the jailing of the ex-president, who is viewed by some grassroots members of the ruling ANC as a defender of the poor.
Once named the “Teflon president”, Zuma was handed the jail term on 29 June by the constitutional court for bucking an order to appear before a commission investigating the graft that proliferated under his administration.
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