South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has accused the “instigators” of planning the country’s worst riot since the end of apartheid, when the army moved to restore order after days of looting that destabilized two large provinces.
Africa’s most industrialized economy is emerging from scenes of anarchy in Gauteng, the economic center, and in KwaZulu-Natal this week that left more than a hundred people dead, destroyed businesses and endangered the development of Covid-19 vaccines in the country. The unrest has waned in recent days as security forces have deployed in greater numbers.
The unrest was initially motivated by the imprisonment of Jacob Zuma, the former president, for contempt of court after he failed to attend an investigation into corruption during his nine-year term. Zuma still has strong support in his native KwaZulu-Natal province, which has a history of political violence, and part of the African National Congress party in the highly divided government.
While their incarceration provided the spark, protests quickly turned into mass revolts by people frustrated with high levels of unemployment in one of the most unequal societies in the world and months of hardship under lock and key.
“These incidents of unrest and looting have been instigated,” Ramaphosa said Friday as he arrived in Durban, the port city of KwaZulu-Natal, the region most affected.
“There were people who planned it. They coordinated it. Our intelligence services and our police now have a line of sight of what was actually going on here with instigation and coordination, “said Ramaphosa, who took over Zuma’s right in 2018.” We have identified a good number of them and we will not allow anarchy and chaos to develop only in our country ”.
Government ministers have earlier pointed to signs of what they have called “economic sabotage” by “sinister elements”.
On Wednesday, the presidency said one of 12 suspected key instigators had been placed in custody. The country’s national spy agency is investigating whether its former agents orchestrated violence in KwaZulu-Natal out of loyalty to Zuma. A famous business firm linked to Zuma denied this week that it was behind the unrest.
Ramaphosa’s government is, however, under a strong focus on what analysts have said were failures to act on warnings of disorder after Zuma was jailed last week. Police were often on hand while looters attacked supermarkets and other businesses this week.
Local media reported that ANC members sought to make the country ungovernable in revenge for Zuma’s incarceration, including by coordinating attacks through social media and exploiting his links with the former security agents loyal to the former president.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are also elements of people in the ANC [seeking] to undermine and weaken President Ramaphosa’s position, ”said Jasmine Opperman, security analyst.
The economic damage in Durban, Africa’s largest maritime port, is estimated at more than R20 billion ($ 1.4 billion) with tens of thousands of jobs at risk, according to the city’s chamber of commerce. Arson has destroyed significant infrastructure in the city, including distribution warehouses, chemical works and a drug manufacturer.
This week the government increased a first military deployment to 25,000 soldiers and reserves, 10 times the original number, as food and fuel shortages loomed.
On Friday armored vehicles patrolled the suburbs and cities of Durban, while the main N3 motorway from Johannesburg to the city reopened.
Ramaphosa acknowledged that the police force and intelligence services “could have done better” but said they had been overruled. He also said South Africa’s reputation as an investment destination had been “severely killed” by the unrest.
South Africa’s economy was already stagnant before the pandemic. “We have really been back on our path to economic recovery,” Ramaphosa said.