Every single shop, every single warehouse as far as the horizon in every direction has been looted. That’s the scene from a helicopter flying over South Africa’s third-largest city, Durban – for 40 minutes without a break.
Tens of thousands of people branded as “opportunistic criminals” smashing down the doors of the city’s largest malls and stores – including several huge discount stores which are part of the U.S. chain Walmart – and literally emptying them of everything. Because they can, without much if any chance of retribution. Because the police are totally outnumbered in general, and specifically because they are often too scared to risk their lives against huge mobs. One policeman has been killed. Forty-four others have also lost their lives. Children, old pensioners, Black and White. Once the stores have been emptied, many have been set alight. A total breakdown of law and order in what is being called “anarchy.”
Durban’s local police have moved in where they can. But they’ve reportedly been told to stop arresting people, as holding cells are full. Nationally, 800 have been arrested. But on the single highway leading into Durban’s poor Kwa Mashu district alone, well over 800 vehicles were seen loaded with stolen products, driving openly through the city.
The area around Johannesburg known as Gauteng has seen an almost equal level of chaos. Police are reported to have run out of rubber bullets and stun grenades, and had to withdraw from Johannesburg’s second-largest township, Alexandra, leaving the looters to literally run riot. In the country’s largest township, Soweto, on the Southern side of Johannesburg, shops in four of the five largest malls have been destroyed. Ten suspected looters were killed Tuesday in Soweto in a stampede of people allegedly wanting to get at produce in a mall.
Some looters have also had large screen TVs they have just stolen taken from them as they leave the battered shops. Several bodies have been seen lying at the side of the road, reportedly looters killed by residents who have taken the law into their own hands. Ominously, Tuesday night, local residents formed armed vigilante-style gangs to protect Soweto’s fifth and largest mall, Maponya Mall.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa appeared on television to address the nation two nights running, promising a tough crackdown on the looters. He called the army out onto the streets – but only dispatched 2,500 soldiers in a country of 60 million. Double that number of looters are said to have descended on just one of Soweto’s malls earlier. And the soldiers cannot affect even arrests, they are only permitted to assist the police. Observers point out Ramaphosa’s corruption-rocked party, the ANC, is battling to keep in power in the country’s upcoming local government elections, and is not wanting to upset potential voters.
The looting continued unabated in many areas Tuesday night. A reporter saw the army on the streets, but also saw people, their arms full of goods they had just apparently stolen, stroll casually past the soldiers.
Hospitals, smacked hard in Johannesburg with a third COVID-19 wave, are running out of oxygen because truck drivers are too scared to leave their depots. In any case, the highway between the country’s main port in Durban and Johannesburg is blocked in at least four places by burnt-out, looted trucks. South Africa’s only oil refinery has had to close as gasoline can’t be delivered. Bakeries have shut down, so empty shelves for the country’s staple food, bread. In a country already beset with frequent power blackouts, Tuesday the national truck drivers’ association announced it is no longer safe to deliver coal to power stations.
The unrest started last week with a highway blockage and burning of trucks by a small number of supporters of former President Jacob Zuma, angered when he was put in jail for contempt of court, for failing to appear at a commission into corruption. Now the State Security Agency has announced they are looking into whether the Third Force is behind this mass mayhem. On Tuesday, Police Minister Bheki Cele let reporters know that 12 individuals, including two members of Zuma’s family, were being investigated for stirring up the mobs on social media.
Business organizations have joined others in calling for a state of emergency to be introduced, with tens of thousands more soldiers deployed onto the streets, taking decisive action against the looters. But in Durban, there’s almost nothing left. It was not a cliche to him, when the owner of a ransacked shop said: “It’s too little, too late, I’m broken.” Even President Ramaphosa himself said he was concerned there will be food shortages, which in turn could lead to yet more violence.