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South Africa unrest death toll rises to 32

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People look at a disbled man on a wheelchair as he moves past the looted and vandalised Lotsoho Mall in Katlehong township, East of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021. Several shops are damaged and cars burnt in Johannesburg, following a night of violence. Police are on the scene trying to control further protests. It is unclear if this is linked to sporadic protests following the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo by Phill Magakoe / AFP)

Soldiers stepped up deployment in South Africa on Tuesday on a mission to quell looting sparked by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma as the death toll from the violence rose to 32.

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President Cyril Ramaphosa announced late Monday that he was dispatching troops to help overwhelmed police halt the unrest and “restore order.”

But stores in Johannesburg and Pietermaritzburg, the capital of southeastern KwaZulu-Natal province, were hit by looters for a fifth day running.

Dozens of women, some wearing their dressing gowns, men and even children strolled into a butcher’s cold store in the Johannesburg suburb of Soweto, coming out balancing heavy boxes of frozen meat on their shoulders or heads.

A sole private security guard stood by helplessly, frantically trying to make calls.

Police showed up three hours later, and fired rubber bullets.

The unrest erupted last Friday after Zuma started serving a 15-month term for snubbing a probe into the corruption that stained his nine years in power.

The toll in KwaZulu-Natal stands at 26, premier Sihle Zikalala told a news conference on Tuesday, a day after officials confirmed six deaths in Gauteng province.

“These were people killed during stampedes as protesters ran riot,” Zikalala said, without specifying which parts of the province.

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Hundreds of arrests
At least 757 people have been arrested, Police Minister Bheki Cele told a news conference, with most of the arrests taking place in Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic capital.

Sounding a note of optimism, he insisted the police would ensure the situation “does not deteriorate any further.”

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.”

It was “of vital importance that we restore calm and stability to all parts of the country without delay,” he said.

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

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 in to authorities as a deadline for surrender loomed.

He is seeking to have the ruling set aside.

The Constitutional Court sat for 10 hours on Monday hearing from Zuma’s lawyers asking the court review its ruling. But the court reserved its judgement to a later, but unspecified date.

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Zuma popularity
Zuma, 79, is a former anti-apartheid fighter who spent 10 years in jail in the notorious Robben Island jail off Cape Town.

He rose in democratic South Africa to vice president and then president, before being ousted by the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in 2018 as graft scandals proliferated.

But he remains popular among many poor South Africans, especially grassroots members of the ANC, who portray him as a defender of the disadvantaged.

Protests that began after Zuma started his sentence were swiftly followed by pillaging of shopping malls, with people carting away TV sets, furniture, alcohol, food and other items, with the police seemingly powerless to act.

Ramaphosa took aim at those who said the unrest was political.

“There is no grievance, nor any political cause, that can justify the violence and destruction,” he said.

South Africa, Africa’s most industrialised country, is deep in an economic malaise, with cripplingly high levels of unemployment. Economic activity has been badly affected by restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus.

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