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South Africa President Says Rioting Following Predecessor’s Arrest Was Attempted Insurrection


JOHANNESBURG—South African President

Cyril Ramaphosa

said Friday that the unrest that followed the arrest of his predecessor was a coordinated campaign to start an insurrection against the country’s democracy through sabotage of the economy and critical infrastructure.

At least 212 people have died and more than 2,500 have been arrested in widespread looting and rioting in South Africa’s two most populous provinces this week. The unrest—the worst public violence in the country since the end of white minority rule in 1994—was triggered by the arrest last week of Mr. Ramaphosa’s predecessor,

Jacob Zuma,

to serve a 15-month sentence for contempt of court.

Mr. Zuma had been convicted on June 29 by the country’s Constitutional Court after he repeatedly refused to testify at a government-appointed commission investigating allegations of corruption during his nine years in office. He has denied wrongdoing.

In an address to the nation—his third in less than a week—Mr. Ramaphosa said Friday that much of the looting was done by organized criminals and ordinary South Africans distressed by the poverty they continue to suffer 27 years after the election of the country’s first Black president,

Nelson Mandela.

But, he said, the ensuing chaos was “used as a smokescreen to carry out economic sabotage,” including through targeted attacks on key infrastructure.

South Africa is facing unrest on a scale that has been rarely seen since white-minority rule ended in 1994. Here’s how one political event exposed deep-seated inequalities that have increased during the pandemic. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

In recent days, rioters have targeted the port in the city of Durban—the largest in sub-Saharan Africa—and blocked traffic on the highway connecting Durban with the economic capital of Johannesburg; they also have forced a temporary halt in the operations of the country’s largest oil refinery. The blockages have led to fears of shortages of food, fuel and other essentials, although government officials stressed Friday that supplies to most of the country weren’t under threat.

“Using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection,” Mr. Ramaphosa said. “It is clear now that the events of the past week were nothing less than a deliberate, coordinated and well-planned attack on our democracy.”

Several members of Mr. Ramaphosa’s cabinet said this week that authorities were investigating 12 people suspected of fanning the unrest, but declined to name any of the suspects or draw a direct connection to Mr. Zuma. At least one of the 12 has been arrested, but Mr. Ramaphosa said Friday that others remained at large. Some 10,000 soldiers, out of a planned contingent of 25,000, have been deployed across South Africa, including in provinces not hit by the unrest.

South Africa President Says Rioting Following Predecessor’s Arrest Was Attempted Insurrection 2

Two South African police officers chased and shot rubber bullets at suspected looters outside a warehouse storing alcohol in Durban on Friday.


guillem sartorio/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Much of Gauteng, the province surrounding Johannesburg and the capital, Pretoria, was calm Friday, with residents cleaning up damaged stores and shopping malls. But there were still pockets of instability in KwaZulu-Natal, Mr. Zuma’s home province, where most of the targeted attacks occurred. Of the 212 confirmed dead, 180 were from KwaZulu-Natal.

The unrest this week happened in the midst of a record surge in Covid-19 infections in South Africa, where, according to a tally of excess deaths by the South African Medical Research Council, more than 190,000 people have lost their lives to the coronavirus since May last year. The rioting disrupted medical care, Covid-19 testing and a vaccination campaign that was finally gathering momentum.

Mr. Ramaphosa warned that the mass looting was likely to drive another surge in infections and delay South Africa’s recovery from a 7% economic contraction last year.

Write to Gabriele Steinhauser at [email protected]

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