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Despite the government's slow response, it has public support to crack down hard on the looters and their sponsors
President Cyril Ramaphosa managed to get through his national TV address on Friday (16 July) condemning the people behind this 'attempted insurrection' without once mentioning the name of his predecessor, Jacob Zuma. He didn't need to. When the President spoke about an attack on South Africa's constitution and democracy, the audience drew its own conclusions.
The past week of armed confrontations between criminal gangs and the police and army started as protests against the jailing of Zuma for 15 months for contempt of court. They started within hours of Zuma handing himself over to the police just before midnight on 8 July (AC Vol 62 No 14, Relief as Zuma surrenders). Over 200 have been killed in the ensuing mayhem.
Loud demands for Zuma's release quickly morphed into violent clashes and mass looting when groups of armed militants, some apparently with military training, took to the streets in KwaZulu-Natal, Zuma's home base, and Gauteng, site of the country's political and commercial capitals.
Some of the looters were desperately poor, while others turned up in expensive cars or hired trucks to grab some of the goods on offer. As well as the big department stores and supermarkets, looters stripped local stores bare. Some will not reopen.
After three days of looting, the gangs turned to arson, setting fire to looted stores and the apartments above them. Then they broadened their targets to electricity sub-stations and water-treatment plants. For a few days, they paralysed the workings of the oil refinery in KwaZulu-Natal, one of the biggest in Africa.
As water and food started running out and power cuts worsened, some state officials accused former security officials loyal to Zuma of fomenting, even planning the chaos as a putsch against Ramaphosa.
By the middle of the week, Ramaphosa announced he would send in 2,500 soldiers to quell the turmoil. Hours later he raised the number to 25,000.
Three things are clear in the aftermath: public sympathy for Zuma has fallen sharply as has the prospect of him being offered a pardon should he be convicted on any of the corruption charges he faces; investigators are following leads about the organisers of the insurrection and there are likely to be some high-level prosecutions; and the government faces more political pressure than ever to improve local services, partly by sacking corrupt officials.
On 21 July, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke is to announce whether local elections will go ahead as scheduled on 27 October or be postponed until the latest wave of coronavirus infections has subsided.
A weird fact of the country's political life is that despite its ruinous factional disputes and many of its senior cadres being besmirched by corruption claims, the African National Congress still dominates the electoral field, even though it may lose a few more municipalities to opposition parties (AC Vol 62 No 12, More time for the truth).
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