South Africa has struggled to contain the worst disorder in decades

Security forces in South Africa are struggling to contain the spread of unrest, as the death toll has risen to at least 26 after violent scenes that President Cyril Ramaphosa admitted he “rarely [been] seen earlier in the history of our democracy ”.

The immediate detonator for the violence was the arrest last week of Jacob Zuma, the former president, in defiance of the court for his refusal to take part in an investigation into corruption during his nine-year term.

Zuma, who still has strong support in the African National Congress and in his native state of Kwa-Zulu Natal, has denied all wrongdoing and says the accusations are politically motivated.

The South African National Spy Agency is investigating whether its former agents orchestrated violence in Kwa-Zulu Natal out of loyalty to Zuma, Ayanda Dlodlo, the state’s security minister, said in a briefing Tuesday. A famous business firm linked to Zuma denied this week that it was behind the unrest. The province is the former president’s power base and has a long history of political violence.

While analysts suggest the violence may have been initially aired by Zuma supporters, high youth unemployment and the economic disruption from the pandemic have also fueled the sacking and unrest. The riots that began in Kwa-Zulu Natal spread much further even into Gauteng, the economic center that includes Johannesburg.

Sihle Zikalala, prime minister of Kwa-Zulu Natal, said Tuesday that 26 people have been confirmed dead so far. Rows have formed outside the few supermarkets that remain open after the sack in Durban, the province’s largest city. The main N3 motorway from Durban to Johannesburg, a major economic artery for South Africa and the region, was also largely closed on Tuesday.

On Monday Ramaphosa ordered the deployment of up to 2,500 soldiers to support the police and said South Africans were “anxious and fearful” of social division. “It’s not who we are as South Africans. It’s not us,” he said in a televised address Monday.

But there has been little sign Tuesday of the promised military deployment on the road and the government is under strong criticism in South Africa for a lethargic police response to insecurity. “The situation has been allowed to get to this point precisely because our law enforcement agencies have not been able to take control quickly and do their job,” said John Steenhuisen, leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance.

South Africa’s high unemployment and strong post-apartheid economic divisions provide a box for violence, exacerbated by the pandemic that is pushing much further below the poverty line. An already slow pace of vaccinations has stopped when medical centers have been forced to close their doors. Official unemployment was down 33 percent in the first three months of this year.

A South African TV station carried live images of looters escaping from a police van while officers watched. “This moment has thrown into a close relief what we already knew: that the level of unemployment, poverty and inequality in our society is unsustainable,” Ramaphosa said. Speaking late Monday, South African television carried a screen shot of bags sacking in a blood bank.

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