JOHANNESBURG – Surveying the uneasy standoff between South African soldiers and huddles of young men faced off Wednesday across the rubble-strewn street in front of Soweto’s Maponya mall, Katlego Motati shook her head sadly.
“I’m standing here against vandals and hooligans,” the 32-year-old said of the weeklong unrest and looting sparked by the imprisonment of ex-President Jacob Zuma, which has left at least 72 people dead.
She was one of scores of residents who came out to stand against the rioting that has rocked poor areas of South Africa.
“When I saw the destruction ... I was in tears, seeing how all this has panned out," Motati said. “At the end of the day, we will be struggling because of this. Our economy is going to be really damaged.”
South African police and the army grappled to bring order Wednesday to impoverished areas in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu-Natal provinces that have been hit by rioting and theft sparked by Zuma's imprisonment last week.
More than 200 violent incidents happened overnight, the government said.
Authorities dramatically increased to 25,000 the number of army soldiers deployed to assist police in restoring order, Minister of Defense Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula announced Wednesday night, an acknowledgment that widespread patrols may be needed to prevent renewed attacks by gangs of poor youths.
Some 1,234 people have been arrested in the mayhem, and many of the deaths were caused by chaotic stampedes as thousands of people ransacked shops, stealing food, electrical appliances, liquor and clothes, police said.
Motati said she knows some of those who took part in the looting.
“People my age, in my neighborhood, are bragging about stealing things and getting shopping carts full of stuff,” she said. “Soon they will be coming to my place to borrow sugar. Those things won't help them.”
Motati, a trained chef with her own catering business, said it is hard to find clients amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“The pandemic has worsened things, for sure, but poverty, unemployment was bad already," she said of the economy, which was in recession before the pandemic.
South Africa's jobless rate of 32%, is even higher among people younger than 35. Although the country of 60 million has Africa's most developed economy, it is one of the most unequal in the world, with more than 50% of people living in poverty and many suffering chronic food insecurity, according to the World Bank.
South Africa's poverty has grown since 1994 when apartheid, the brutal system of racial oppression, ended with democratic elections, exacerbating frustrations.
“The pandemic and lockdowns put even more people out of work. ... This was just an opportunity for people to take whatever they could get,” Motati said. "I don't think it stems from Zuma being locked up — it was building before that. Then one person kicks down the door and others follow.”
The violence erupted last week after Zuma began serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court for refusing to comply with a court order to testify at a state-backed inquiry investigating allegations of corruption while he was president from 2009 to 2018.
The protests in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu-Natal provinces escalated into a spree of theft in township areas, although it has not spread to South Africa’s other seven provinces, where police are on alert.
KwaZulu-Natal, the eastern province that is Zuma's home area and where the protests first ignited, has seen significant violence. Trucks going to and from Durban, South Africa's largest port, may have to travel in convoys protected by the army, business leaders said.
The province is the center of South Africa's largest ethnic group, the Zulus, where Zuma has drawn considerable support. However, the Zulu monarch, King Misuzulu kaZwelithini, appealed Wednesday for an end to the mayhem and for peace to be restored.
“My father’s people are committing suicide,” he said. “When food cannot be delivered because trucks and warehouses are burned, our people will go hungry.”
The violence “has brought shame to all of us,” he said.
Arson has damaged several factories and the government ordered gasoline not be sold in containers to discourage illegal fires.
A tense order appeared to have been achieved Wednesday by security forces in Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province which includes the largest city, Johannesburg.
“I can confirm that currently it’s calm in Gauteng,” said army Col. Mmathapelo Maine, as soldiers brandishing rifles stood by, protecting the large Maponya mall in Soweto.
“We have control of the situation and this is with the cooperation of the community,” Maine said.
Across the street, scores of residents lined up to buy bread from a truck selling directly to people instead of delivering to shops that had been closed.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa met online Wednesday with National Assembly political party leaders to urge all to work together to restore order.
Ramaphosa had consultations “with different sectors of society to develop a society-wide response,” said Tyrone Seale, the president’s acting spokesman.
“The president said the destruction witnessed by the nation hurt all South Africans, not only those in the affected areas,” he said. “And it hurt the poor, the elderly, and the vulnerable the most.”
At Soweto's Diepkloof shopping center, business owners assessed the damage.
“It’s just like being raped,” said Thandi Johnson, looking at her shop, TWJ Events Supply, that had been cleaned out the day before by rioters. “And then you see the rapist walking past you,” she said gesturing toward residents walking by.
“Twelve years I've been working on this business and it's destroyed in one day,” she said, shaking with anger as she looked at where she had sold balloons and decorations for children’s parties and other events.
“They pushed me aside," she said of the rioters. "I pleaded with them that I am one of them, but they just came in and took everything. Look!” she said pointing to the bare shelves. “I didn’t come here by train, I’m a Sowetan! I’m born here.”
Johnson said she is worried that insurance will not cover her losses because she is not covered for political violence. “I'll be finished,” she said.
Nearby, a group of young men was sweeping up broken beer bottles and trash in front of a liquor store that had been looted the day before.
“We're trying to be the youth who bring hope back to our country,” said Thando Matsepe, 24, of the Zodwa Khoza Foundation, a youth development group.
“Yesterday this place was destroyed. So we are trying to clean up and get the country back up on its feet,” he said.
"This was crime. It was not a ‘Free Zuma’ campaign. It started with Zuma, but this is not how things should be done in South Africa. They have the right to protest peacefully, nicely. But this brings destruction. Everybody will suffer."