South Africa said Monday it was deploying troops to its two most densely populated provinces after unrest sparked by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma led to six deaths and widespread looting.
Overwhelmed police are facing mobs who have ransacked stores, carting away anything from boxes of alcohol to beds, refrigerators and bath tubs.
Six people have died, some with gunshot wounds, and 219 people have been arrested, according to a police tally issued before the army deployed.
Troops will “assist law enforcement agencies deployed in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces… to quell the unrest that has gripped both provinces in the last few days,” the armed forces said in a statement.
President Cyril Ramaphosa, who at the weekend called for calm, is expected to address the nation later Monday, his office said.
The violence raged as the Constitutional Court was hearing an application to review its landmark decision to jail Zuma for contempt of court. Judgement was reserved after a marathon 10-hour sitting.
The country’s top court on June 29 slapped Zuma with a 15-month term for snubbing a probe into the corruption that stained his nine years in power.
Zuma began the sentence last Thursday but is seeking to have the ruling set aside.
“This court made fundamentally rescindable errors,” Zuma’s lawyer Dali Mpofu argued in an on-line hearing before nine of the court’s 11 judges.
Zuma had been treated unfairly and his “right to mitigation was limited,” he said.
But one of the judges, Steven Majiedt, bluntly said Zuma had been convicted “because he disobeyed the order of this court.”
Mpofu responded that Zuma was being “punished for more than the disobedience” of a court order.
Despite his reputation for graft and scandal, the 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter remains popular among many poor South Africans.
– Looting –
The epicentre of the unrest is Zuma’s home region, the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal.
Shortly before the military’s announcement, troops were seen on the streets of its capital Pietermaritzburg and smoke billowed from the roof of a large shopping mall. Banks, shops and fuel stations in the city were shut.
Retail shops in Durban were looted Monday while in Eshowe, a town near Zuma’s Nkandla home, police fired rubber bullets to disperse crowds after a supermarket was ransacked.
In Johannesburg, in Gauteng province, an AFP photographer saw a corpse at one site, although the cause of the death was not immediately known.
A police helicopter hovered over the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto, where looters casually made off with giant TV sets, microwave ovens, clothes and linen, for hours.
Many businesses shuttered.
A mall in Johannesburg’s upmarket Rosebank suburb closed early following “a tipoff that the looters are on their way,” a security guard told AFP.
On the sidewalks, workers queued up to catch commuter mini-buses to go back home.
In the meantime, chemists helping the government’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign warned that the unrest gripping the country would slow inoculations in the continent’s worst-hit country as “vaccination sites have been destroyed and looted”.
The unrest began on Friday, taking the form of protests triggered by Zuma’s detention.
But looting swiftly took over, reflecting hardship in a country hit by catastrophic unemployment and a toughening of anti-Covid restrictions.
– Zuma faces another case –
Once dubbed the “Teflon president,” Zuma started serving the jail term after handing himself in to authorities as a deadline for surrender loomed.
On Friday he lost a petition at the Pietermaritzburg High Court to have his case thrown out.
The court said Zuma’s claims about his health were not “supported by any evidence.”
An anti-graft panel is probing the massive siphoning off of state assets that occurred during Zuma’s 2009-2018 presidency.
He testified just once, in July 2019, but then swiftly withdrew his cooperation.
Under the terms of his sentence, Zuma could be back home long before Christmas as he would be eligible for parole in less than four months.
He is due back in court on July 19 for a separate case where he faces 16 charges of fraud, graft and racketeering in an arms procurement scandal dating to 1999, when he was vice president.