South African riot deaths hit 117 as army starts restoring calm

JOHANNESBURG (BLOOMBERG) – South Africa’s death toll from days of riots rose to 117 even as the worst of the violence appeared to ease, with the deployment of thousands of soldiers starting to take effect.

The authorities have arrested almost 1,500 people, including one of 12 who allegedly helped instigate the unrest, resulting in rampant looting and the destruction of businesses in two key provinces, acting Minister in the Presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni told reporters in Pretoria, the capital, on Thursday (July 15).

The situation remains volatile in KwaZulu-Natal, the heart of the violence, while the economic hub of Gauteng should stabilise by Friday, she said.

About 10,000 troops are now on the streets, leading to a drop in the number of incidents.

“These are not demonstrations, this is economic sabotage,” Ms Ntshavheni said.

Protests erupted on July 10 after former president Jacob Zuma was imprisoned for defying a court order, before spiralling out of control as marauding mobs began to loot stores and all manner of institutions from banks to medical facilities.

The rising death count represents the most lethal uprising since the buildup to the end of apartheid in 1994, when violent demonstrations and subsequent crackdowns were relatively commonplace.

Telecommunications towers and other infrastructure have been destroyed, while transport networks and a programme to vaccinate people against the coronavirus have been disrupted.

Business Leadership South Africa, one of the main business lobby groups, estimates that damages amount to more than 5 billion rand (S$468.37 million) and counting for the retail industry alone.

More than 200 malls were targeted, over 800 stores were looted and 100 were completely burnt, its Chief Executive Officer Busi Mavuso said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Insurance headache

Rioters loot the Jabulani Mall in the Soweto district of Johannesburg, on July 12, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Attention is now turning to whether insurance companies will be able to cover the cost of the carnage, with claims estimated to run into several billions of rand.

Much of that will have to be considered by Sasria, a South African state-owned company that provides cover for social unrest and rioting.

The sheer number of affected businesses means it’s likely that processing claims will be slow and an interim fund may have to be set up for support, said Mr Martin Kingston, representing Business Unity South Africa, another industry group.

BUSA is calling for a rolling 24-hour curfew in the key provinces and a full deployment of the armed forces to bring an end to the crisis.

Transnet SOC Ltd, the state-owned ports, freight rail and pipelines operator, said on Friday its port and terminal operations at Durban and Richards Bay on the KwaZulu-Natal coast are slowly starting to normalise.

Richards Bay has cleared all shipping backlogs and the Transnet pipeline network is functioning, it said in a statement.

Infrastructure lost

A community member cleans up debris from the aftermath of continuous looting and destruction at the Jabulani mall in Soweto, on July 15, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

“It will take two-to-three years to recover the infrastructure lost here,” Mr Colin Coleman, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc in Sub-Saharan Africa, said in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

“To restock these centres will take 10 weeks and we are going to have severe shortages for some time.”

Some business groups have urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to give the police and army additional powers to end the violence, fearing that communities and private militias will mete out their own form of justice.

Video footage published on Johannesburg-based radio station Kaya 959’s website showed private security guards firing live ammunition at a mob on Tuesday.

“I really would like to see our president talking to people and giving a level of affirmation and confidence,” Mr Fani Titi, chief executive officer of South African-born specialist banking group Investec Plc, said in a call on Thursday.

“At this point in time, we need much firmer communication. There is an issue around food security and anxiety around fuel supply.”

The rand was 0.1 per cent stronger at 14.57 to the dollar as of 813am in Johannesburg on Friday, still set for a decline of 2.4 per cent this week.

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