JOHANNESBURG – Standing before a looted mall and surrounded by soldiers, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa vowed Friday to restore order to the country after a week of violence set off by the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.
Visiting the port city of Durban in hard-hit KwaZulu-Natal province, Zuma's home area, Ramaphosa said the chaos and violence in which more than 200 people died had been “planned and coordinated” and that the instigators will be prosecuted.
“We have identified a good number of them and we will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country,” he said. One person has been arrested for instigating the violence and 11 others are under surveillance, officials said.
As army tanks rolled by the trashed Bridge City mall, Ramaphosa said the deployment of 25,000 troops would end the violence and rampant theft that have hit KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces.
South Africa’s unrest erupted after Zuma began serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court for refusing to comply with a court order to testify at a state-backed inquiry investigating allegations of corruption while he was president from 2009 to 2018.
Protests quickly escalated into theft in township areas. In Durban, rioters attacked retail areas and industrial centers where they emptied warehouses and set them alight. The burned-out shells still smoldered Friday.
More than 2,500 people have been arrested for theft and vandalism and 212 people have died, Ramaphosa told the nation later Friday. Many who died were trampled to death when shops were looted, said police.
“The events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy,” said a solemn Ramaphosa. “These actions are intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken – or even dislodge – the democratic state. Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection.”
Ramaphosa reiterated that those who instigated the unrest will be arrested and prosecuted.
“Those responsible for organizing this campaign of violence and destruction have not yet been apprehended and their networks have not yet been dismantled,” said Ramaphosa. “(But) we know who they are and they will be brought to justice.”
He assured South Africans that the country has adequate food and it will be distributed to areas where supplies have been disrupted. He said disruptions to the COVID-19 vaccination drive will be quickly addressed.
Ramaphosa said that the cost of the rioting to South Africa's economy will be “billions and billions of rands (dollars).” Extensive damage has been caused to 161 malls and shopping centers, 11 warehouses, 8 factories and 161 liquor stores and distributors, he said.
The army rollout in KwaZulu-Natal is expected to restore order in the coastal province within a few days. An uneasy calm has been secured in Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city and industrial hub.
Two strategic highways linking Durban port to Johannesburg and Cape Town reopened Friday after being closed for a week. The military will patrol the highways but drivers were warned to use the roads with care.
“It is vitally important to proceed with extreme caution and to stay alert at all times," the highway authority said in a tweet Friday.
The highways are vital transport routes carrying fuel, food and other goods. Authorities were working to reopen the rail line to the strategic Indian Ocean ports of Durban and Richard’s Bay.
One of the country’s biggest food manufacturers, Tiger Brands, said it has stopped food production operations at its most affected sites in KwaZulu-Natal. The company said it had lost stock worth close to 150 million rand (about $10 million) in the violence.
With order restored in Gauteng, authorities have begun holding residents accountable. Police in Johannesburg have started recovering stolen property and arresting suspects.
There has been an increase in people trying to spend cash stained with green dye, evidence that the money was stolen from the hundreds of ATM machines broken into during the riots, according to the South African Banking Risk Information Center, which warned that the notes won't be honored.
To restore respect for law, the South African Council of Churches has proposed that the government declare a limited amnesty of two weeks when people can return stolen property to the police and will not be charged.
“We need leaders of all faiths everywhere, civic and community leaders, traditional leaders in rural communities, and business and trade unions in the workplace, all of us to pull together and chart a path of restoration,” Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general secretary of the ecumenical group, wrote in an open letter.
Swift action must be taken against those who plotted the strategic attacks, said Ronnie Kasrils, veteran anti-apartheid leader and former Cabinet intelligence minister.
“This unrest is coming to be seen by government and intelligence services and the president as an actual plot by a group in support of Jacob Zuma ... to unleash civil disorder and really to bring the country to its knees,” said Kasrils. “There is the need to root out the plotters and bring forward the allegations, the evidence.”
AP journalist Mogomotsi Magome contributed from Johannesburg.