As Rioters Overwhelm Police, South African Civilians Step In
(Bloomberg) -- South African taxi drivers, private security companies and ordinary civilians are stepping up to protect their businesses and communities following days of rioting and looting that the authorities have failed to quell.
Protests erupted on July 10, triggered by former President Jacob Zuma’s incarceration on contempt-of-court charges, and quickly degenerated into a free-for-all in the KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, two of the country’s main economic hubs. At least 72 people have been killed, making the uprising the deadliest since apartheid ended in 1994. Hundreds of businesses have been ransacked by marauding mobs, and with the police unable to restore order, others are filling the breach.
“Our plan is to make sure that our taxi drivers must protect the malls,” Bafana Magagula, strategy manager for the South African National Taxi Council, said Wednesday by phone. “Any structure that is demolished where large groups of people are working, we are losing, it’s minus, minus. If we don’t protect those structures, at the end of the day we will be out of business.”
Some taxi operators aided Johannesburg metropolitan police officers to retrieve stolen goods. Community leaders also organized people to guard shopping malls in Gauteng, and the situation remained relatively calm there on Wednesday morning, said Vuyo Mhaga, a spokesman for the provincial Premier David Makhura.
“Our residents, community policing forums, local taxi associations, community and residential groups have come together to prevent lawlessness,” Randall Williams, the mayor of Tshwane, which includes the capital Pretoria, said in a statement. “Unabated looting and infrastructure destruction will have far lasting economic consequences such as job losses and closure of many small businesses.”
Private security contractors were deployed to guard fuel stations and other key facilities in KwaZulu-Natal. With more than 100 mobile-phone towers destroyed by protesters, the nation’s telecommunications regulator issued a direct plea to communities to help guard communications infrastructure.
“Any disruption of communication services could prove disastrous and result in increased mortality, as emergency calls may be directly impacted,” Keabetswe Modimoeng, the chairman of the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, said in a statement.
Some business groups have urged President Cyril Ramaphosa to give the police and army additional powers to end the violence, fearing that community 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.
“The beer industry is calling on the national government to urgently declare a state of emergency and drastically increase the number of South African National Defence Force officers deployed,” the Beer Association said in an emailed statement.
Read: AB InBev, Heineken Facilities Damaged in S. Africa Protests: BI
While the government has deployed more than 2,500 soldiers to back up the police, it’s shied away from declaring a state of emergency -- a measure the apartheid government last resorted to to counter opposition to White-minority rule. The security agencies said 549 people had been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal and 683 in Gauteng by late Tuesday.
Ramaphosa’s office said he is consulting with the leaders of religious groups, business and political parties on how best to restore stability.
“The National Prosecuting Authority is putting together a team of special prosecutors who have been instructed to oppose bail for suspects associated with public violence and economic sabotage,” it said in a statement late Tuesday. Law enforcement agencies have also been instructed to enforce a night-time curfew that was already in place to try contain the spread of the coronavirus, it added.
The government on Wednesday relaxed restrictions on public gatherings to allow religious and traditional leaders to address their followers and enable them to ease tensions and provide counseling.
Police spokesmen didn’t answer calls seeking comment on whether the violence has abated. The government is due to hold a media briefing later on Wednesday.
The turmoil has exacerbated economic hardship caused by the coronavirus and associated lockdowns, rattled the financial markets and disupted efforts to dispense coronavirus vaccines amid a third wave of infections.
The rand steadied on Wednesday after plunging to the weakest level since April on Tuesday. The currency was 0.8% stronger at 14.6130 per dollar as of 2:43 p.m. in Johannesburg. A foreign exit from South African stocks has gathered pace, with non-residents selling 4 billion rand ($272 million) of local equities on Tuesday, the largest outflows since November.
Paper producer Sappi Ltd., building supplies company Cashbuild Ltd. and state port and freight rail operator Transnet SOC Ltd. joined a long list of firms whose operations have been interrupted.
“The devastating impact of Covid-19 has already caused tragic loss of lives and livelihoods,” Mike Brown, the chief executive officer of Nedbank Ltd., the nation’s fourth-largest lender, said in a statement. “This lawlessness by some will result in even further devastation to the lives of many. It harms our country and all South Africans.”
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