Violence in South Africa: Death Toll Rises to 72 as Unrest Spreads

The violence worsened after former president Zuma challenged the 15-month jail term on 12 July.

4 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Looters outside a shopping centre alongside a burning barricade in Durban, South Africa on Monday, 12 July.</p></div>

As rioting and looting of stores and warehouses continued in South Africa for the sixth consecutive day, the government on Wednesday, 14 July, reportedly sought to deploy 25,000 troops to curb the unrest.

Earlier this week, death toll rose to 72 people, as unrest over the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma widened into an outpouring of anger over the inequality, unemployment, and poverty that plagues the nation even 27 years after the end of apartheid.

This also comes after the COVID restrictions aggravated poverty among the people. Meanwhile, unemployment stood at a record high of 32.6 percent in the first three months of 2021.

The unrest first erupted last Friday in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, after Zuma started serving a 15-month jail term for contempt of court, having snubbed a probe into the corruption that stained his nine years in power, news agency AFP reported.

The unrest spread to Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city, and by the weekend, it had started spreading to Gauteng province.


President Cyril Ramaphosa deployed troops to quash the protest, initially with about 2,500 soldiers of the armed forces trying to help the police. However, according to AFP, now Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula has told the parliament she had "submitted a request for deployment of plus-minus 25,000 soldiers."

This scaling up of forces comes amid fears of food and fuel shortages as disruption to farming, manufacturing, and oil refining began to bite.

Meanwhile, South Africa's main opposition accused radicals of fuelling the unrest.

According to AFP, looting has hit supply and transport chains, especially in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, impacting goods and services around the country.

The government has claimed that 208 incidents of looting and vandalism were recorded Wednesday, as the number of troops deployed doubled to 5,000.

Meanwhile pointing out that troop deployments are authorised by the president, the defence minister, as per the report, had not yet said when the extra troops would be on the streets.


Zuma, who is charged with multiple counts of corruption, was handed the jail term by the Constitutional Court on 29 June, for opposing an order to appear before a commission probing into a high-level graft that took place under his rule.

He handed himself to the authorities on Thursday and started serving his jail term. The legal proceedings are also being seen as South Africa’s ability to enforce the rule of law.

The violence worsened after the former president challenged the 15-month term in the country’s top court on 12 July.



The police said in a statement on Tuesday, "The total number of people who have lost their lives since the beginning of these protests ... has risen to 72”, AFP reported

Most of the deaths, the statement added, "relate to stampedes that occurred during incidents of looting of shops". Some deaths were also linked to shootings and explosions of bank ATMs. Meanwhile, as many as 1,234 people have been arrested.

Tumelo Mosethli, a South African entrepreneur based in Johannesburg, said jobs being lost as a result of the unrest will “exacerbate” the current situation.

“We don’t need this – to see people’s shops and businesses being gutted. Yes, people are hungry today, but tomorrow there’ll be more unemployment, more pain, more suffering in a nation that is trying to recover and rebuild itself", Al Jazeera quoted Mosethli as saying.


Zuma’s foundation said that until the former president was released from jail, there would be no peace in South Africa.

The foundation said in a tweet, “Peace and stability in South Africa is directly linked to the release of President Zuma with immediate effect."

A spokesman for the foundation further said, “The violence could have been avoided. It started with the decision of the constitutional court to detain president Zuma. This is what gave anger to the people,” Reuters reported.


For many people, the looting and chaos that ensued was a chance to ease their life of poverty, by looting groceries, frozen meat, among other things, rather than causing unrest to defend Zuma.

One of the looters, a 30-year-old man, was quoted as saying, "I'm really not concerned about Zuma. He is a corrupt old man that deserves to be in jail," AFP reported.

He admitted to taking stainless-steel pots, meat and groceries, saying that he was "taking things from the shop for my mum."



Tim Murithi of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation said that the large scale of the uprising was “unexpected”.

He was quoted as saying, “The key point is this really reveals the multi-layered nature of the crisis – social, economic disparities, social exclusion that goes back to the apartheid legacy in South Africa, combined with years of misrule, paradoxically, by Jacob Zuma between 2009 and 2018” Al Jazeera reported.


Ramaphosa in his nationwide address on Monday, lashed out saying that these were "opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft. The path of violence, of looting and anarchy, leads only to more violence and devastation.”

The chair of the African Union Commission also condemned "the surge of violence that has resulted in the deaths of civilians and appalling scenes of looting", and called "for an urgent restoration of order", AFP reported.

Moreover, the Democratic Alliance, the largest opposition party, declared on Tuesday that it would file criminal charges against Zuma's children and the leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema.

EFF was accused of using "social media to express comments which appear to encourage and incite the violence and looting", AFP reported.


Seventy-nine-year-old Zuma is often portrayed as a defender of the disadvantaged, especially by the grassroots members of the African National Congress (ANC), among whom he remains popular.

Zuma had spent 10 years in jail in the notorious Robben Island jail off Cape Town, as an anti-apartheid fighter.

In democratic South Africa, he rose to become the vice president and then president, before being ousted by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2018 as scandals increased.

(With inputs from Al Jazeera, AFP and Reuters)

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