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South Africa riots: At least 72 killed, over 1,000 arrested amid worst violence in decades

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(PRETORIA, South Africa) — At least 72 people have been killed in ongoing riots across South Africa, despite the efforts of heavily outnumbered authorities to quell the violent unrest sparked by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.

The South African Police Service said in a statement Tuesday that the death toll had risen to 27 in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal and to 45 in the economic hub of Gauteng province, with many of the fatalities occurring in “stampedes” as scores of people looted food, liquor, clothes and electrical appliances from shops in poor areas. Other deaths were caused by explosions when people tried to break into ATM machines as well as shootings, according to police.

At least one police officer was killed in an attack on law enforcement, while seven others were injured while responding to the riots, police said.

So far, 1,234 people have been arrested, according to police, but the chaos has continued. Looters were seen ransacking warehouses and supermarkets in the port city of Durban on Tuesday, while rioters set fire to a chemical plant near the town of Umhlanga, just north of Durban.

The South African Police Service has recalled officers from leave and rest days, while the South African National Defence Forces has deployed thousands of soldiers to assist the overstretched law enforcement agencies on the ground.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has vowed to “restore calm and order,” describing the unrest as the worst the country has witnessed since the 1990s, before the end of the apartheid regime,

“Over the past few days and nights, there have been acts of public violence of a kind rarely seen in the history of our democracy,” Ramaphosa said in a televised address to the nation on Monday evening. “Let me be clear: We will take action to protect every person in this country against the threat of violence, intimidation, theft and looting. We will not hesitate to arrest and prosecute those who perpetrate these actions and will ensure that they face the full might of our law.”

The lawlessness has disrupted South Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination program, which Ramaphosa warned will have “lasting effects on our ability to consolidate some of the progress we were already witnessing in our economic recovery.” Vaccine shots are urgently needed in the country, which — along with other nations in Africa — is fighting a new wave of COVID-19 infections. The South African government recently reimposed and extended tight restrictions, including a nightly nationwide curfew, school closures, a ban on gatherings and limits on alcohol sales.

Violence and unrest has gripped parts of South Africa since Zuma turned himself in to police on July 7 to begin his 15-month jail term for contempt of court. South Africa’s highest court handed down the sentence after Zuma failed to appear before an inquiry examining corruption during the nine years that he served as president. Zuma has maintained his innocence, saying he is the victim of a politically motivated witch hunt, and his supporters took to the streets last week. But the protests appear to have reawakened deep-seated grievances over persistent poverty, unemployment and inequality, some 27 years after apartheid ended.

Following job layoffs and an economic downturn from the coronavirus pandemic, South Africa’s unemployment rate stands at a record high of 32.6% and is even higher among the youth, at 46.3%, according to official numbers released in June by the national statistical service. Meanwhile, more than half of the country’s 60 million people were living in poverty last year, according to data collected by the World Bank Group.

“There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the violence and destruction that we have seen in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng,” Ramaphosa said. “The path of violence, of looting and anarchy, leads only to more violence and devastation. It leads to more poverty, more unemployment, and more loss of innocent life. This is not who we are as a people.”

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