South African president Cyril Ramaphosa has blamed “instigators” for planning the country’s worst unrest since the end of apartheid, as the army moved in to restore order after days of looting that has destabilised two major provinces.
Africa’s most industrialised economy is reeling from scenes of anarchy in Gauteng, the economic hub, and KwaZulu-Natal this week that left more than a hundred people dead, wrecked businesses and imperilled the country’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout. The unrest has lessened in recent days as security forces have deployed in larger numbers.
The unrest was initially prompted by the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, the former president, for contempt of court after he failed to attend an inquiry into corruption during his nine-year tenure. Zuma still has strong support in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which has a history of political violence, and within parts of the deeply divided ruling African National Congress party.
While his jailing provided the spark, protests quickly spiralled into mass rioting by people frustrated with high levels of joblessness in one of the world’s most unequal societies and months of hardship under lockdown.
“These incidents of unrest and looting were instigated,” Ramaphosa said on Friday as he arrived in Durban, the port city in KwaZulu-Natal, the worst-hit region.
“There were people who planned it. They co-ordinated it. Our intelligence services and our police have now got a line of sight of what actually was happening here with the instigation and the co-ordination,” said Ramaphosa, who took over from Zuma in 2018. “We’ve identified a good number of them and we will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country.”
Government ministers have previously pointed to signs of what they have called “economic sabotage” by “sinister elements”.
On Wednesday, the presidency said one of 12 suspected key instigators had been taken into custody. The country’s domestic spy agency is investigating whether its own former agents had orchestrated violence in KwaZulu-Natal out of loyalty to Zuma. A leading business family related to Zuma denied this week that it was behind the unrest.
Ramaphosa’s government is, however, under heavy fire over what analysts have said were failures to act on warnings of unrest after Zuma was jailed last week. Police often stood by while looters attacked supermarkets and other businesses this week.
Local media have reported that members of the ANC sought to make the country ungovernable in revenge for Zuma’s jailing, including through the co-ordination of attacks through social media and by leveraging their ties to former security agents loyal to the ex-president.
“It will not surprise me if there are also elements of people in the ANC [seeking] to undermine and weaken President Ramaphosa’s position,” said Jasmine Opperman, a security analyst.
The economic damage in Durban, Africa’s biggest shipping port, is estimated at more than R20bn ($1.4bn) with tens of thousands of jobs in danger, according to the city’s chamber of commerce. Arson has wrecked significant infrastructure in the city, including distribution warehouses, chemical works and a drug manufacturer.
This week the government increased an initial military deployment to 25,000 soldiers and reserves, 10 times the original number, as food and fuel shortages loomed.
On Friday armoured cars were patrolling Durban’s suburbs and townships, while the main N3 motorway from Johannesburg to the city reopened.
Ramaphosa conceded that the police force and intelligence services “could have done better” but said they had been overwhelmed. He also said South Africa’s reputation as an investment destination had been “severely dented” by the unrest.
South Africa’s economy was already stagnant before the pandemic. “We’ve really been taken backwards on our path to economic recovery,” Ramaphosa said.