South African President Cyril Ramaphosa says the weeklong looting and deadly unrest that have rocked the country were “planned.”
Ramaphosa made the comment on Friday, as he arrived in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province, known as the epicenter of the unrest, which spreads in South Africa in the wake of the jailing of the country’s former president Jacob Zuma as grievances boil over.
“It is quite clear that all these incidents of unrest and looting were instigated, there were people who planned it and coordinated it,” Ramaphosa said, but did not mention any group or individuals by name.
“We are going after them, we have identified a good number of them and, we will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country,” he further told reporters.
Ramaphosa’s office had said earlier that he would “undertake an oversight visit (in KZN) to assess the impact of recent public violence and the deployment of security forces.”
On Thursday, the government announced that one of the suspected instigators had been arrested and 11 others were under surveillance.
The unrest was sparked by the jailing of Zuma on July 8, but the situation has evolved into an outpouring of anger over persistent poverty and inequality in South Africa, 27 years after the end of apartheid, with the economic effects of restrictions imposed over the coronavirus pandemic having exacerbated the situation.
The protests first erupted in the southeastern province KZN before spreading to the capital Johannesburg. The demonstrations, however, rapidly turned into looting as groups of people plundered shops and storehouses, hauling away goods as police stood by, seemingly powerless to act.
Zuma, who has the support of the poor and loyalists in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), began a 15-month jail term for snubbing a corruption investigation.
During the past week, shopping malls and warehouses have been looted in two provinces, raising fears of shortages and delivering a stinging blow to the economy. At least 212 people have lost their lives in the violence, some shot and others killed in looting stampedes.
The government on Wednesday called out around 25,000 troops to handle the emergency - 10 times the number that it initially deployed and equivalent to around a third of the country's active military forces.
Separately on Wednesday, defense, security and police ministers and the top army brass went to KZN to evaluate the situation and oversee the expanded deployment of security forces there.
According to Minister of Small Business Development Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, relative calm has returned to the capital, but the situation in KZN still “remains volatile.”
In a statement on Thursday, Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), a respected business lobby group, urged the government to impose a 24-hour curfew to quickly contain the unrest.
“This is an emergency unparalleled in our democratic history and requires the state to take immediate action," it said, adding, “We believe this must include a strongly enforced curfew in specific areas to clear the streets and allow law enforcement to regain control.”
Analysts estimate that thousands of businesses have been plundered in what Ntshavheni described as “economic sabotage” masterminded by a dozen of suspects.
South Africa’s Constitutional Court was on Monday asked by Zuma’s lawyers to review its decision on jailing the 79-year-old former president for contempt of court. The court has reserved its judgment for a later but unspecified date.
Zuma was removed from office by his ruling African National Congress (ANC) in February 2018, in a move orchestrated by the allies of his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa.
He was forced to resign when ANC lawmakers turned against him over accusations of having links to the wealthy India-born Gupta family, who are alleged to have influenced his government. Zuma and the Guptas, however, deny the allegations.
Zuma is a former anti-apartheid activist who spent 10 years in the notorious Robben Island jail off Cape Town. The former president is popular among many poor South Africans, especially the grassroots members of the ANC, who see him as a defender of the disadvantaged.