Looting and violence in South Africa reflect inequalities exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic


JOHANNESBURG — The violence and looting in parts of South Africa, sparked by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma, spreads to reflect deeper issues in the continent’s most developed economy, where a third containment pandemic is exacerbating economic pain and unemployment that has disproportionately affected the poor.

Police, now bolstered by a small deployment of troops, fought for a third day to contain the crowds ransacking warehouses and malls in the economic capital of Johannesburg and the port city of Durban. In hospitals, doctors already strained by a record wave of Covid-19 infections struggled to treat the injured, with many nurses and other staff unable to come to work due to the roadblocks roads and wider insecurity, officials said.

The country’s police department has warned that the continued blockage of some of South Africa’s main transport routes could within days lead to shortages of food and other essentials and mass rallies could provoke a further increase in Covid-19 cases. At least 72 people have died amid the instability, officials said on Tuesday, some trampled to death in the rush of shopping malls.

A policeman pointed his rifle at a pickup truck in Johannesburg on Monday.


marco longari / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

“People are tired and frustrated with the whole situation,” said Abram Lekganyane, who typically sells durags, sunglasses and masks at a stand at the Pan Africa Mall in Alexandra Township in Johannesburg. Mr Lekganyane said he checked his wares at a nearby warehouse and saw people leaving with everything from plasma TVs to audio systems and groceries.

“The spark may have been Zuma. Now it’s a revolution against containment, because nothing is planned, ”he said.

The unrest began over the weekend when protests erupted in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal against the former president’s arrest for contempt of court. Zuma, who resigned three years ago but still enjoys support in the ruling African National Congress, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to testify before a government commission investigating allegations of widespread corruption during his nine years in power. He denied any wrongdoing.

As the protests reached downtown Johannesburg and impoverished townships, residents turned their anger on stores and malls, whose offerings had become increasingly inaccessible over the past year. as the South African economy sank into its deepest recession on record. Officials and witnesses said some of the looters were experienced criminals, but others simply took the opportunity to take whatever they could.

Residents clashed with police at the entrance to a looted shopping center in Vosloorus on Tuesday.


marco longari / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Looting and violence are emblematic of the economic and social upheaval that the pandemic has triggered in many developing countries. The governments of Colombia in Lebanon, in addition to South Africa, lack the resources to deliver the economic stimulus and social security programs implemented in the richer countries. Limited stocks of Covid-19 vaccines are also slowing the recovery, as new waves of infections continue to overwhelm hospitals and cause thousands of deaths.

In South Africa, the impact of the coronavirus has sparked new anger over years of economic malaise and what the World Bank describes as the world’s highest levels of inequality.

At the end of June, Mr. Zuma’s successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, closed schools, restaurants, gymnasiums and other businesses for the third time to stem an increase in Covid-19 cases which has already exceeded the two previous waves of the country. Although some restrictions were relaxed this week, millions of South Africans are still out of work and unable to support their families.

The official unemployment rate stood at 33% at the end of March, a figure that rises to 43% if discouraged job seekers are included. According to a survey conducted in March and April, more than 10 million of South Africa’s 60 million citizens have suffered from hunger in the past seven days. Since then, a pandemic relief payment for the poorest citizens of 350 South African rand per month, equivalent to around $ 24, has expired.

“Ramaphosa must give us our 350 (rands) or we won’t finish looting,” a young man outside a ransacked Johannesburg mall told South African television station Newzroom Afrika. “All of us here… we are suffering. “

A private security guard with suspected looters at a shopping center in Vosloorus on Tuesday.


marco longari / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Violence and looting are likely to cause even more hardship for affected business owners and their employees. Sihle Zikalala, the premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, estimated that at least R 1 billion of property had been destroyed.

“The social costs of the damage could take the form of increased unemployment and poverty in the years to come,” he said.

In Durban, the owner of a small computer store said he saw looters loot his family business on Monday evening, after unsuccessful attempts to convince police and armed security guards to intervene.

“The cameras weren’t working until soon after they entered, and we could see them from a distance, until they also ended up stealing the cameras,” said the man, who asked that his name be not printed for fear of further attacks. . “What is happening only makes the situation that was already bad with Covid worse.”

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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