Skip to main content

South African police force suspected looters to lie down and roll in muddy water after apprehending them on July 13, 2021, in Soweto, Johannesburg. South Africa has deployed the military to quell spasms of civil unrest and looting sparked by last week's imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma.James Oatway/Getty Images

It will be the biggest military deployment in South Africa since the end of apartheid: About 25,000 soldiers are being mobilized in a last-ditch bid to quell some of the worst looting and destruction in the country in decades.

Less than two days after authorizing 2,500 troops to tackle the violent unrest, the South African government realized this was not enough. It swiftly doubled the number to 5,000 soldiers on Wednesday and then announced a new plan for a tenfold increase, a move that will require an extraordinary call-up of military reserves.

While the official death toll stood at 72, there were reports that hundreds may have died in stampedes and shootings as many thousands of people attacked shopping malls and set factories ablaze.

South Africa facing food shortages after violence and looting ignited by arrest of former president Jacob Zuma

In Durban alone, some 45,000 businesses have been affected by the unrest, officials said, and food and fuel shortages were worsening. At least 200 shopping centres across the country have been ransacked by looters, and national highways have been shut down, endangering South Africa’s supply chains.

The military deployment is a risky gamble. “This is a short-term, emergency, all-hands-on-deck deployment,” said Darren Olivier, a director at African Defence Review.

A member of the South African National Defence Force patrols the streets on July 13, 2021, in Soweto, Johannesburg. The civil unrest is also fuelled by high unemployment and social and economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has hit the country hard.James Oatway/Getty Images

“It can’t be sustained for very long, so government is clearly hoping that it’s effective enough to get the crisis under control quickly before it’s forced to reduce deployed numbers. The next few days are crucial.”

The mobilization of soldiers to combat a domestic crisis is a tacit admission of the grim realities that South Africa has long endured: persistent crime and corruption, years of economic stagnation and rising unemployment, the crumbling of the state in key sectors such as electricity and transport, a growing lawlessness in many regions, and an unofficial policy of impunity for violent street mobs as police routinely tolerate attacks on shops and businesses.

The dysfunctional trends have left the state unravelling in slow motion for years, without much global attention, until it all accelerated spectacularly in the past six days, triggered by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma for a 15-month contempt of court sentence last week.

Factional feuding within the ruling African National Congress is certainly part of the explanation for the latest eruption, with Mr. Zuma’s faction lashing out at the government after losing an internal power struggle. His supporters are widely suspected of inciting and orchestrating the violence. Pandemic lockdowns have not helped the mood. But for anyone who was paying attention to South Africa, there have been warning signs of rising anarchy in key sectors for many years.

Religious leaders carrying South African flags walk near a looted shopping mall in Vosloorus, Johannesburg, on July 14, 2021.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

With the government distracted by corruption and political infighting, the South African economy has fallen into decline. On a per-capita basis, the country has failed to record any economic growth for six consecutive years. Unemployment has climbed to record heights. Using a measure that includes “discouraged workers” who have abandoned the search for jobs, the unemployment rate has reached 43.2 per cent, and young graduates often feel they have no chance at jobs.

Without economic prospects, many South Africans have unleashed their anger on foreign migrants, leading to surges of attacks on foreign-owned shops and trucks in recent years.

While the police stood and watched, mobs have looted shops and torched trucks, sometimes shutting down national highways. Few of the perpetrators have been punished, which eventually sent an unofficial signal: Larger-scale ransacking attacks would be possible and accepted.

It was a message that was widely understood in Durban and other districts this week. The chaotic looting of recent days “has been fuelled by criminal justice failures and years of impunity for violence,” Amnesty International said in a statement on Wednesday. “Entrenched impunity for past acts of violence has undermined the rule of law and resulted in a vicious cycle of violence.”

Meanwhile, crucial sectors of the state have badly eroded, leaving millions of people with little loyalty to the government. The state electricity monopoly, Eskom, has routinely imposed power blackouts on the country, damaging the economy and leaving homes in darkness. Investigations have found that Eskom was ravaged by corruption. Insiders used inflated contracts to steal funds that could have otherwise paid for essential maintenance.

Zandile Dlamini, the sister of 13-year-old Vusi Dlamini, cries at the scene where her brother was allegedly shot by vigilantes on July 14, 2021, in Vosloorus, Johannesburg.James Oatway/Getty Images

Perhaps the most blatant example of state collapse has been South Africa’s passenger rail system. Over the past two years, entire train stations have been dismantled by looters, brick by brick. Electricity cables have been systematically stolen, and long stretches of railway tracks have been simply uprooted and carted away. Even the functioning routes are hobbled by slow and rusty trains, crumbling platforms, debris-choked tracks and dilapidated stations.

As a result, according to one survey, 80 per cent of South African train users – more than half a million people – have abandoned the passenger rail system. The busiest line in Cape Town stopped running for more than a year. Commuters have been forced to switch to more expensive transport options, which many can barely afford.

Another example of state dysfunction is the construction sector. Thuggish “business forums” have descended on construction sites, demanding a slice of the revenue, forcing some companies to give up their contracts and halt their projects. Police have done little to ensure security at these sites.

A person walks pass a deserted Dr. Pixley Ka Seme street strewn with dirt and filth following five days of violence and looting in Durban on July 14, 2021.RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP/Getty Images

And in another example of the impact of violence, mining giant Rio Tinto announced last month that it was shutting down its Richards Bay Minerals operation in KwaZulu-Natal province because of criminal anarchy by local residents, including the killing of a senior executive, the destruction of mining equipment and the blocking of roads. About 5,000 workers were employed there.

Every year in South Africa, at least two million people have been involved in street protests, usually against the government or local companies. South African sociologist Lindy Heinecken has called it a “rebellion of the poor,” fuelled by social and economic inequality in a country that is often ranked as the most unequal in the world.

In all of these incidents, South Africa’s overwhelmed and understaffed police services have done little to help – just as they have proven ineffective against the massive looting and destruction of the past week.

Political analyst Oscar van Heerden has suggested that the police might be unofficially engaging in a work slowdown to protest against recent cuts to their budget and the threat of salary freezes. This, in turn, has encouraged the spread of the unrest and destruction, he said.

“There appears to be little to no enforcement of law and order from our police service,” he wrote in an analysis this week.

“People see the police’s failure to act and they become motivated in other parts of the country to replicate the violence and looting.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.