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Death toll climbs to 72 amid looting, violence across South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa: At least 72 people have been killed amid a looting spree and violence for the fifth consecutive day despite the deployment of the army in a bid to quell unrest in South Africa.

As large-scale pillaging erupted in the economic capital of Johannesburg and southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, the crisis burst into the political arena, where South Africa’s main opposition accused radicals of stoking the unrest.

President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the armed forces to send 2,500 soldiers to help the police control law and order situation.

But these numbers are dwarfed by the more than 70,000 troops deployed to enforce last year’s coronavirus lockdown, and only a handful of soldiers were seen at some shopping centres.

The raging unrest first erupted last Friday after former president Jacob Zuma started serving a 15-month term for contempt after snubbing a probe into the corruption that stained his nine years in power. By the weekend it started spreading to Gauteng province.

“The total number of people who have lost their lives since the beginning of these protests …has risen to 72,” police said in a statement late Tuesday.

Most of the deaths, the forces, said: “relate to stampedes that occurred during incidents of looting of shops”.

Others were linked to shooting and explosions of bank automatic cash machines.

With the recent deployment of soldiers, police said “more boots have been on the ground”.

The number of arrests has risen to 1,234, although many thousands have been involved in the ransacking sprees.

Security officials said the government was working to bring an end to the violence and looting, which has spread from Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg, the country’s biggest city, and its surrounding province of Gauteng.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) said late on Tuesday that as many as 72 people had lost their lives and 1,234 had been arrested over the last few days as protests descended into looting and riots.

The legal proceedings against Zuma, who is charged with multiple counts of corruption, have been seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa’s ability to enforce the rule of law.

The former president, who has denied wrongdoing, was jailed for contempt after he defied an order to attend an inquiry into the high-level graft. The violence has worsened as Zuma challenged the 15-month term in the country’s top court on Monday. Soldiers have been deployed to help support the police and “restore order”.

Related story: Six killed as South Africa deploys troops to quell unrest

Any confrontation with soldiers risks fuelling claims by Zuma and his supporters that they are victims of a politically motivated crackdown by his successor, Cyril Ramaphosa.

In his nationwide address Monday night, Ramaphosa lashed “opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft.”

“The path of violence, of looting and anarchy, leads only to more violence and devastation,” Ramaphosa said.

But the crisis took a political twist on Tuesday as the largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, announced it would file criminal charges on Wednesday against Zuma’s children and the leader of the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Julius Malema.

In a statement, the party accused them of using “social media to express comments which appear to encourage and incite the violence and looting.”

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 nine years in power.

He started serving the jail term on Thursday after handing himself into authorities as a deadline for his surrender loomed.

He is seeking to have the ruling against him set aside. The Constitutional Court has reserved its judgement on his application to rescind its ruling.