Vigilante groups form in South Africa amid looting and violence

Citizens warned not to take law into own hands to protect property, as government plans to deploy 25,000 more troops

Senior officials in South Africa have appealed to ordinary citizens not to take the law into their own hands as vigilante groups form following days of unchecked looting and violent protests across a swath of the country.

Thousands of soldiers have been deployed to help police on the streets, but law enforcement agencies still appear unable to stem ongoing attacks by crowds on warehouses, supermarkets, shopping malls, clinics and factories.

The country’s defence minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, told parliament on Wednesday that she had requested around 25,000 more soldiers to be deployed on the streets.

In many parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the two provinces hit by the violence, vigilante groups and armed community patrols have formed as anxious residents seek to protect their homes and businesses.

Speaking in north Johannesburg, Bheki Cele, the police minister, called on ordinary people to “work with the soldiers, you work with the police … your community in blue, those that work with the police station”.

He added: “We are fine with that. But the problem starts when they go for parallel structures; they go themselves and shoot the people and all that. Well, it is mob justice … vigilantism when people take law into their own hands.”

The death toll from almost a week of unrest has risen to 72, some from gunshot wounds, and more than 1,750 people have been arrested.

The crisis was sparked last week when the former president Jacob Zuma was taken to prison to begin a 15-month sentence for contempt of court, after refusing to appear before a judicial inquiry investigating corruption under his nine-year rule, which ended in 2018.

Zuma’s decision to hand himself in was seen as a victory for the rule of law but protests organised by his supporters quickly evolved into widespread violence and looting, with crowds breaking into shopping malls before turning on warehouses, service stations and distribution centres.

The unrest has so far been almost entirely limited to South Africa’s two most densely populated provinces: Gauteng, where Johannesburg, the largest city and economic powerhouse is located, and KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma’s home province.

Main roads in both provinces have been cut and supplies of food, fuel and medicine badly disrupted. A faltering Covid-19 vaccination programme has been hit along with other health services.

Though the unrest appeared to have subsided on Tuesday, scattered incidents of violence and arson were reported, with warehouses looted and burned in several locations.

A mother throws her child from a burning building in Durban, South Africa, following looting.
A mother throws her child from a burning building in Durban, South Africa, following looting. Photograph: YouTube

A two-year-old girl survived unharmed after her mother threw her to safety as they escaped a burning high-rise building in Durban during protests.

The mother, 26-year-old Naledi Manyoni, told Reuters that she had been on the 16th floor when the fire started on Tuesday. She ran down the stairs with her daughter and made her way to a ledge above the street before tossing the toddler to a group of people below.

Many have been shocked by the failure of police to intervene to stop looters and have acted themselves to protect homes, property and businesses.

In Soweto, a historic former township and now suburb of Johannesburg, residents mounted guard over the only mall that has not been ransacked. In nearby Kliptown, small groups of local people tried to stop looters clearing out local food shops.

“We did our best to protect our community but there were just too many people. They just pushed us away. We never saw the police. It’s going to be really hard now … really tough just to eat,” said Nkotozo Dube, 36, a former tourist guide in Kliptown.

Others set up makeshift barricades to block access to their neighbourhoods, or stood guard outside malls and other businesses that provide rare employment and basic services. In many places, local taxi firms have taken on the protection of key sites.

“The taxi industry … strongly warns those with intentions to loot to desist from any attempts as they will find the industry waiting,” said Abner Tsebe, the chair of the South African National Taxi Council. “It is … in our interests to stand against this form of outrageous thuggery.”

Residents in parts of the south-eastern city of Durban, which has been hit badly by the disturbances, were reported to have concluded informal agreements to act as “backup” for police.

Government officials have sent mixed messages.

Oscar Mabuyane, the premier of the Eastern Cape province, on Tuesday congratulated people for “protecting their towns from any potential attacks by anarchists”.

There are fears, however, that the formation of such groups could lead to further deaths, and a rise in tensions between communities.

In Port Edward, a small town in western KwaZulu-Natal, residents set up barricades to protect homes. Carrying firearms, sticks, pepper spray and knives, they closely questioned anyone seeking to enter or leave their neighbourhood, warning that those who did would not be allowed back in.

“We wanted to go to buy groceries but they told us to go home and stay there. They were not overtly hostile but it felt like racial profiling. Now we are running out of food,” said Elisha Kunene, a lawyer staying in the town.

The National Hospital Network, representing 241 public hospitals already under strain from Africa’s worst Covid epidemic, said the looting and destruction was having dire consequence on hospitals, with staff in affected areas unable to get to work.

South Africa’s largest refinery, Sapref in Durban, has been temporarily shut down.

The billions of dollars of damage are a massive setback to an already weak economy, with investor confidence undermined and South Africa’s image as a regional leader badly tarnished.

Some analysts have attributed the breakdown of order to factional rivalries within the ruling African National Congress party.

Zuma was ousted by South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, in 2018 after Ramaphosa took over the leadership of the ruling ANC the previous year.

Zuma’s jailing was a significant victory for the moderate and pragmatic faction of the ANC and there is evidence that followers of the former leader instigated at least some of the unrest in a deliberate effort to undermine rivals, possibly opening a way to a return to power or at the very least protecting their economic interests.

Zuma’s core supporters say he is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents. The 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter has hitherto remained popular among many poor South Africans, especially in KwaZulu-Natal.


Jason Burke Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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