Every store, every warehouse on the horizon in every direction has been looted. This is the scene of a helicopter flying over South Africa’s third largest city, Durban – for 40 minutes non-stop.
Tens of thousands of people branded as “opportunistic criminals” smash the doors of the city’s biggest malls and stores – including several huge discount stores that are part of the US chain Walmart – and literally empty them of everything. Because they can, with little or no chance of retaliation. Because the police are totally outnumbered in general, and in particular because they are often too afraid to risk their lives against huge crowds. A policeman was killed. Forty-four others were also killed. Children, old retirees, Black and White. After the stores were emptied, many were set on fire. A total collapse of law and order in what is called “anarchy”.
The local Durban police stationed where they could. But they were reportedly told to stop arresting people because the holding cells are full. Nationally, 800 have been arrested. But on the only highway leading to the poor district of Kwa Mashu in Durban, more than 800 vehicles were seen loaded with stolen goods, openly crossing the city.
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The area around Johannesburg known as Gauteng experienced an almost equal level of chaos. Police reportedly ran out of rubber bullets and stun grenades, and had to withdraw from Johannesburg’s second largest township, Alexandra, leaving looters to literally wreak havoc. In the country’s largest township, Soweto, south of Johannesburg, stores in four of the five largest malls have been destroyed. Ten suspected looters were killed in Soweto on Tuesday in a stampede by people who allegedly wanted to purchase products from a shopping center.
Some looters also had large screen televisions stolen from them as they left beaten stores. Several bodies were seen lying by the side of the road, apparently looters killed by residents who ruled themselves. Worryingly, on Tuesday night, local residents formed vigilante-style armed gangs to protect Soweto’s fifth and largest mall, Maponya Mall.
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South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has appeared on television to address the nation two nights in a row, promising a harsh crackdown on looters. He called on the army to take to the streets, but only sent 2,500 troops to a country of 60 million people. Double that number of looters reportedly descended on just one of Soweto’s shopping centers earlier. And the soldiers can’t even affect the arrests, they are only allowed to help the police. Observers point out that Ramaphosa’s corrupt party, the ANC, is fighting to stay in power in the country’s upcoming local elections, and does not want to upset potential voters.
Looting continued unabated in many areas on Tuesday evening. A journalist saw the army in the streets, but also saw people, with their arms full of goods they had apparently just stolen, casually walk past the soldiers.
Hospitals. hit hard in Johannesburg with third wave of COVID-19, lack of oxygen because truck drivers are too afraid to leave their depots. Regardless, the highway between the country’s main port in Durban and Johannesburg is blocked in at least four places by torched and looted trucks. South Africa’s only oil refinery has had to close because gasoline cannot be delivered. The bakeries have closed, so the shelves are empty for the country’s staple, bread. In a country already plagued by frequent power outages, the National Association of Truck Drivers said on Tuesday it was no longer safe to deliver coal to power plants.
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The unrest began last week with the blocking of a highway and the burning of trucks by a small number of supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, furious when he was jailed for contempt of court, for failing to appeared before a commission on corruption. Now, the State Security Agency has announced that it is investigating whether the third force is behind this mass chaos. And on Tuesday, Police Minister Bheki Cele told reporters 12 people, including two of Zuma’s family, were under investigation for stirring up crowds on social media.
Professional organizations joined with others in calling for a state of emergency, with tens of thousands of additional troops deployed on the streets, taking decisive action against the looters. But in Durban, there is almost nothing left. It wasn’t a cliché for him, when the owner of a ransacked shop said, “It’s too little, too late, I’m broken. Even President Ramaphosa himself says he is concerned about food shortages, which could in turn lead to even more violence.
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