JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Friday that those behind a week-long spree of violence and pillaging that has shocked South Africa sought a “popular insurrection,” as the unrest death toll reached 212.
Ramaphosa also acknowledged in a televised address that “we were poorly prepared” for the disorder, but vowed that “we will find those who have instigated this violence.”
“Those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection amongst our people,” he said.
“We will spare no effort in bringing those individuals to justice.”
A minister in Ramaphosa’s office, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, had earlier told reporters the investigations “are at a very advanced stage.”
One of the suspected instigators has been arrested and 11 are under surveillance, she said.
Shopping malls and warehouses have been ransacked in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province and Johannesburg, stoking fears of shortages and inflicting a devastating blow to the already battered economy.
Ramaphosa said that business owners had told him it would take them “a few months” to restore normal operations following the destruction, interrupting supply chains and threatening shortages.
Of the 212 people killed, 180 died in KZN, according to government figures. Some of the fatalities were shot and others died in looting stampedes.
Ntshavheni said the situation in the affected regions was “gradually and firmly returning to normality.”
Army called out
The unrest followed protests triggered by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma, who was handed a 15-month jail term for snubbing a corruption investigation.
Zuma, whose home province is KZN, commands support among loyalists in the ruling African National Congress (ANC), who portray him as a champion of the poor.
Carl Niehaus, a suspended member of the ANC and a Zuma supporter, told an online event that those claiming looting was deliberate sabotage encouraged by Zuma’s supporters were “scapegoating.”
In scenes that have stunned the nation, looters have casually plundered stores, pharmacies and in one case a blood bank, hauling away goods as police stood by, seemingly powerless to act.
More than 2,500 people have been arrested for various offenses, including theft, according to official figures.
On Wednesday, the government called out the armed forces reserves to meet a new target of deploying 25,000 troops — 10 times the number that it initially deployed. The planned deployment is equal to about a third of active military personnel.
Ramaphosa has defended the police, saying they had acted cautiously to avoid a catastrophe.
The police wanted “to save lives, to make sure that we did not get into a situation which could have resulted in more mayhem… The situation could have been much worse”, he said earlier in the day.
He pointed to the rollout of 25,000 troops, predicting that “in a short space of time, they will have flooded” the two regions.
In Johannesburg on Friday, a military helicopter carrying the defense commander Rudzani Maphwanya landed in a car park in front of McDonald’s restaurant in Alexandra township to oversee his troops.
“We are going to make sure that there’s nobody who is going to challenge the authority of the state,” he said. “We will meet force with force.”
Fear of shortages
The unrest has spurred fears for availability of fuel, food and medicine, at a time when South Africa is struggling with a vicious COVID-19 pandemic.
The country has the highest tally of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Africa, recording more than 2.2 million infections and nearly 66,000 deaths. In the past 24 hours, the toll has risen by 16,400 cases, of which 377 were fatal.
The World Health Organization’s Africa chief, Matshidiso Moeti, has warned South Africa to brace for a surge in infections following the days of rioting and rooting.
Long lines of people trying to buy supplies have formed outside grocery shops in Durban, with some residents saying bread prices had increased by around a third.
Agriculture Minister Thoko Didiza urged shoppers in other provinces not to go “panic buying” so as not to interrupt the food supply chain.
“We have sufficient food supplies in the country, the immediate problem[s] in supply chains for the KwaZulu-Natal [province] are getting urgent attention,” she said.