President Cyril Ramaphosa pleaded for calm following days of protests that were triggered by last week’s incarceration of his predecessor and have claimed 10 lives, forced businesses to shut and weakened the currency.
“This is not who we are as South Africans, this is not us. Time and time again we have chosen a different path, of peace, engagement and democracy,” Ramaphosa said Monday in a televised address, his second in two days.
“What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft.”
The riots began in the southeastern KwaZulu-Natal province, former President Jacob Zuma’s home base, and spread to the nation’s economic hub of Gauteng over the weekend, disrupting commerce and transport networks. Authorities arrested 489 people and sought to disperse hundreds of protesters who targeted stores across the two regions.
A key trade route in KwaZulu-Natal was shut after trucks were torched on Friday night and the looting of malls followed. Standard Bank Group, Africa’s biggest lender, closed its branches in protest-hit areas. Retailers Pick n Pay Stores, Woolworths and Massmart, a unit of Walmart Inc., were among the companies to shut outlets.
South Africa’s rand weakened as much as 2% to 14.5058 the dollar in Johannesburg on Monday, the most since February 25, as the violence spread.
The government said the army will be deployed to help the police quell the unrest, among the worst the nation has seen since the end of white-minority rule in 1994. The protests began after Zuma handed himself in on July 7 to begin serving a 15-month sentence for defying a court order to testify at a graft inquiry. He denies wrongdoing.
“We will be prioritising the prosecution of suspects alleged to be involved in this violence,” Ramaphosa said. “We will take action to protect every person in this country against the threat of violence, intimidation, threats and looting.”
The president warned that the unrest could threaten food security and was disrupting efforts to inoculate people against the coronavirus.
The tumult coincided with the extension of a lockdown that’s hurting businesses and robbed many people of their livelihoods in a nation with a 32.6% unemployment rate.
‘’South Africa has been sitting on a powder keg for some time,” Mervyn Abrahams, program coordinator for the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice Dignity Programme, said by phone from Durban.
Joblessness, inflation, and the lockdown means “the rioting and looting is a prime way for many criminal elements to take advantage of the situation under the banner of ‘Free Zuma’ whether they believe in it or not,” he said.
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The Constitutional Court on Monday heard Zuma’s application to have his conviction and sentencing reviewed. It reserved judgment.
While parts of the N3 Toll Route, which links the port city of Durban with Gauteng, was reopened on Monday, access to the M2 highway in Johannesburg remained restricted in some areas after protests erupted there overnight. The inner city and central business district bore the brunt of the violence.
“There is no grievance or political cause that can justify the violence we have seen in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng,” Ramaphosa said.
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