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An armed South African looks for looters inside a supermarket following protests that have widened into looting, in Durban, South Africa on July 13, 2021.KIERRAN ALLEN/Reuters

Thousands of soldiers and patrolling civilian volunteers are beginning to gain control of some of South Africa’s worst-hit districts after five days of chaotic violence and massive looting that has left at least 72 people dead.

Military vehicles rumbled through the streets and armed troops mobilized near shopping malls on Tuesday after the deployment of 2,500 soldiers. Lengthy queues formed at shops in the port city of Durban as fears mounted about emerging shortages of food, medicine and petrol, with many highways and railway lines still shut down.

Hundreds of businesses have been ransacked and destroyed, including entire malls and supermarkets, medical clinics, warehouses, factories and even radio stations and a water treatment plant. Many of the deaths were caused by trampling from looting stampedes. More than 1,230 people have been arrested so far.

The chaos was triggered by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma last week, but has quickly transformed into opportunistic looting at a time of rising unemployment and severe inequality in the postapartheid society.

Mr. Zuma’s charity foundation, his main outlet for public messages, warned ominously on Tuesday that “peace and stability” in the country would be “directly linked to the release of President Zuma with immediate effect.” Many South Africans responded on social media by accusing him of inciting violence and anarchy.

South African police apprehend suspected looters in Johannesburg, on July 13.James Oatway/Getty Images

Police Minister Bheki Cele said the authorities have a dozen names of suspected instigators of the rioting, but at a media briefing on Tuesday he declined to say whether the list included Mr. Zuma or his family members or supporters. One of the former president’s daughters, Dudu Zuma-Sambudla, has approvingly tweeted videos of arson attacks in recent days, accompanied by the hashtag #FreeJacobZuma.

Mr. Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to obey court orders to testify at an official inquiry into state corruption during the nine years of his presidency. He also faces separate charges of corruption, related to a South African weapons contract in the 1990s, at a trial that resumes next week.

The rioting and destruction is believed to be partly connected to factional tensions fuelled by Mr. Zuma’s supporters within the ruling African National Congress, but also to the worsening economy and the long-standing patterns of criminality and lawlessness in many sectors of the South African state. Railways, construction sites and public infrastructure have long been plagued by looting and extortion.

The worst of the latest unrest has taken place in Mr. Zuma’s traditional stronghold, KwaZulu-Natal province, and especially in Durban. Thousands of looters have targeted warehouses around the city, a key supply hub for South Africa because of its ocean port. They have also ransacked supermarkets, destroying more than 70 supermarkets in the Spar grocery chain, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal.

People loot an area near a burning warehouse after violence erupted following the jailing of former South African President Jacob Zuma.ROGAN WARD/Reuters

Police have often been overwhelmed by the looting and arson attacks. In many cases, hundreds of people ransacked malls and shops for hours at a time, with no sign of any police. The attacks have spread from KwaZulu-Natal to the country’s economic heartland, Gauteng province, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.

In a televised speech to the country on Monday night, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the deployment of the military and a plan to mobilize additional police by cancelling vacations and rest days. The security forces were reinforced on Tuesday by large numbers of citizen volunteer groups, often guarding shops and malls around the clock to ward off looters.

“Parts of the country are reeling from several days and nights of public violence, destruction of property and looting of the sort rarely seen before in the history of our democracy,” Mr. Ramaphosa said in his televised speech.

“This violence may indeed have its roots in the pronouncements and activities of individuals with a political purpose,” he said. “However, what we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft. There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the violence and destruction we have seen.”

Mr. Ramaphosa warned that the country is facing the danger of food and medicine shortages within weeks as a result of the ransacking and destruction. And there are already some early warning signs that these shortages are beginning to occur.

In Durban, most pharmacies were closed, vaccination sites were almost completely shut down, scores of supermarkets were destroyed or closed, hospitals were forced to fly in emergency supplies, there were long queues at petrol stations and food stores, and some retailers placed limits on purchases. Farmers were unable to get their goods to markets in the region because of the dangers on transport routes.

South Africa’s biggest crude oil refinery, based in Durban, announced on Tuesday that it was declaring force majeure and shutting down its operations because of disruptions to supply routes and deliveries in the region.

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