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Death toll rises to 72 in South Africa rioting after jailing of ex-president

Soldiers in front of a damaged ATM.
Soldiers inspect ATMs damaged in rioting and looting in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Monday.
(Ali Greeff / Associated Press)

The death toll from rioting in South Africa climbed to 72 on Tuesday, with many people trampled to death during looting at stores, as police and the military fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to try to halt the unrest set off by the imprisonment last week of former President Jacob Zuma.

More than 1,200 people have been arrested in the lawlessness that has raged in poor areas of two provinces, where a community radio station was ransacked and forced off the air Tuesday and some COVID-19 vaccination centers were closed, disrupting urgently needed inoculations.

Many of the deaths in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces occurred in chaotic stampedes as thousands of people stole food, electric appliances, liquor and clothing from stores, police Maj. Gen. Mathapelo Peters said in a statement Tuesday night.

He said 27 deaths were being investigated in KwaZulu-Natal and 45 in Gauteng. In addition to the people crushed, he said, police were investigating deaths caused by explosions when people tried to break into ATMs, as well as fatalities caused by shootings.

The violence broke out after Zuma began serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court on Thursday. He had refused to comply with a court order to testify at a state-backed inquiry into allegations of corruption while he was president from 2009 to 2018.

The unrest then spiraled into looting in township areas of the two provinces, although it has not spread to South Africa’s seven other provinces, where police are on alert.

“The criminal element has hijacked this situation,” said Premier David Makhura of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg.

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More than half of South Africa’s 60 million people live in poverty, with an unemployment rate of 32%, according to official statistics. The COVID-19 pandemic, with layoffs and an economic downturn, has increased the hunger and desperation that helped propel the protests triggered by Zuma’s arrest into wider rioting.

South Africa is imposing a sweeping set of coronavirus restrictions as the country faces a third, variant-driven wave of infection.

“We understand that those unemployed have inadequate food. We understand that the situation has been made worse by the pandemic,” an emotional Makhura said on the state South African Broadcasting Corp. “But this looting is undermining our businesses here [in Soweto]. It is undermining our economy, our community. It is undermining everything.”

As he spoke, the broadcast showed police trying to bring order to the Ndofaya shopping mall, where 10 people were crushed to death in a looting stampede. Gunshots could be heard in the background.

Makhura appealed for leaders of political, religious and community organizations to urge people to halt the unrest.

The World Health Organization says the continent of 1.3 billion people is facing a severe shortage of vaccine as a new wave of infections is rising.

The deployment of 2,500 soldiers to support the South African police had failed to stop the rampant looting, although arrests were being made in some areas in Johannesburg, including Vosloorus township in the eastern part of the city.

At least 1,234 people were arrested in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, authorities said, but the situation was far from under control.

Looting continued Tuesday in Johannesburg shopping malls in township areas, including Jabulani Mall and Dobsonville Mall in Soweto. There were also reports of continued looting in KwaZulu-Natal.

In Daveyton township, east of Johannesburg, more than 100 people, including women, children and older citizens, were arrested on suspicion stealing from shops inside the Mayfair Square mall.

Some of those arrested were bleeding from shattered glass on floors slippery from spilled milk, liquor, yogurt and cleaning liquids that had been stolen from shops.

Running battles continued as security and police officers fired stun grenades and rubber bullets to push back rioters, who were entering the shops by going through delivery entrances, emergency exits and climbing on roofs.

Bongani Mokoena, an employee at an auto supply store, said the rioters had taken everything from the shop, including batteries and shock absorbers.

By late afternoon, the police managed to secure the mall, but rioters remained outside, throwing stones at officers and shouting for the release of those arrested. As evening fell, more rioters gathered around the mall, and police set up barricades to try to keep them away.

In Soweto, the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital reported that the number of injured people coming to the emergency ward had tripled from the daily average. The unrest forced the government to close some COVID-19 vaccination centers, disrupting urgently needed efforts to inoculate thousands of those age 50 and older per day.

In Johannesburg’s Alexandra township, the Pan Africa shopping center continued to be ransacked and was set on fire on Tuesday.

The Alex FM radio station, which has served the Alexandra community for 27 years, was broken into at 2 a.m. Tuesday. Thieves stole equipment worth $350,000, forcing the station off the air, station manager Takalane Nemangowe said.

“Our on-air presenter and security guards got out safely through the back door,” Nemangowe told the Associated Press. “But the looters cleaned out our offices. They took all our broadcasting equipment, computers, laptops, microphones, everything.”

South Africa is agog over whether a woman has actually given birth to 10 babies in what would be the world’s first recorded case of decuplets.

Nemangowe said that no police or army had been patrolling the area. The Alex FM station is community-funded and runs a training program for young residents, he said. “We were the voice of the voiceless here in Alexandra. And now we are silent. It is really sad.”

But Nemangowe had not given up hope. By Tuesday afternoon, he and other staff had been offered facilities at a radio station in the nearby affluent Sandton suburb, where they were trying to start broadcasting back to the Alexandra community.

Authorities have repeatedly warned people, including Zuma supporters and relatives, against using social media to encourage the riots. Police minister Bheki Cele said Tuesday that about a dozen people had been identified as having instigated the riots.

On Monday, the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, heard Zuma’s application to have his sentence rescinded. Zuma’s lawyer argued that the court made errors when sentencing Zuma to prison. After 10 hours of testimony Monday, the court judges said they would announce their decision at a later date.


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