The South African government on Wednesday sought to deploy around 25,000 troops to curb unrest, now in its sixth straight day, amid fears of food and fuel shortages as disruption to farming, manufacturing and oil refining began to bite.
Seventy-two people have died and more than 1,200 people arrested, according to official figures, since former president Jacob Zuma began a 15-month jail term, sparking protests that swiftly turned violent.
Looting has hit supply chains and transport links especially in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, impacting goods and services around the country.
The government said 208 incidents of looting and vandalism were recorded Wednesday, as the number of troops deployed doubled to 5,000.
But Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula later told parliament she had “submitted a request for deployment of plus-minus 25,000” soldiers. Troop deployments are authorised by the president.
She did not say when the extra troops would be on the streets.
Government had been under pressure to increase boots on the ground to quickly put a lid on the violence pummelling an already struggling economy.
The country’s consumer goods regulatory body estimated that more than 800 retail shops had been looted.
President Cyril Ramaphosa met leaders of political parties and cautioned that parts of the country “may soon be running short of basic provisions following the extensive disruption of food, fuel and medicine supply chains”.
State-owned logistics operator Transnet declared a “force majeure” on Wednesday – an emergency beyond its control – on a key rail line that links Johannesburg to the coast because of the unrest.
In the port city of Durban, hundreds of people queued outside food stores hours before they opened, as lines of cars also formed outside fuel stations, an AFP photographer saw.
On Tuesday, the country’s largest refinery Sapref shuttered its plant in Durban, responsible for a third of South Africa’s fuel supply.
“It’s inevitable that we will have fuel shortages in the next couple of days or weeks,” the Automobile Association’s Layton Beard said.
‘Massive humanitarian crisis’
In Johannesburg’s Soweto township, bread was being sold from a delivery truck outside a major shopping mall as stores have either been looted or shut due to fears of vandalism.
The lootings have “seriously compromised our energy security and food security,” said Bonang Mohale, chancellor of University of the Free State.
The violence has also disrupted the coronavirus vaccine rollout and medicines deliveries to hospitals, said Mohale, echoing similar reports from hospitals.
The country, which has recorded more than 2.2 million infections, is in the midst of a brutal virus third wave.
Christo van der Rheede, executive director of the largest farmers’ organisation, AgriSA, said producers were struggling to get crops to market because of the logistical “shambles”.
He warned that if law and order were not restored soon, “we are going to have a massive humanitarian crisis”.
Sugarcane fields were torched in KwaZulu-Natal, the main cane-growing region, while elsewhere cattle were stolen.
Ramaphosa had initially deployed just 2,500 troops at the start of the week to help the overwhelmed police force, before plans quickly changed to scale up the numbers to 25,000.
But locals have started forming vigilante groups to protect infrastructure in their neighbourhoods.
A group of commuter minibus operators armed themselves with sticks and firearms on Wednesday and violently beat up suspected looters Vosloorus township, southeastern Johannesburg.
Images of crowds of looters hauling away refrigerators, large televisions, microwave ovens and crates of food and alcohol have been a visceral shock for many South Africans.
The new king of the Zulu community, Misuzulu Zulu, said violence had brought “great shame” on his people.
“This chaos is destroying the economy, and it is the poor who will suffer the most,” warned the monarch, who has moral influence over Zulus but no executive powers.
“This is unprecedented economic damage that is taking place,” Mohale agreed.
The pillaging swiftly followed protests over the jailing of the ex-president, who is viewed by some grassroots members of the ruling ANC as a defender of the poor.
Once dubbed the “Teflon president”, Zuma was handed the jail term on June 29 by the Constitutional Court for bucking an order to appear before a commission probing the graft that proliferated under his administration.