The most severe riots in decades continue to rock South Africa, reportedly begun when socialist operatives objected to the conviction of former left-wing President Jacob Zuma.
Rioting, looting and widespread — often xenophobic — violence began in Johannesburg and Durban, spreading to numerous cities over the weekend. “Parts of the country are reeling from several days and nights of public violence, destruction of property and looting of the sort rarely seen before in the history of our democracy,” said current South African President Cyril Ramphosa in a heartfelt address to the nation on Monday. “It started with the burning of trucks … in KwaZulu-Natal this past Saturday and was followed by blockades of roads in the northern parts of the province and the looting of shops.”
Rioters stopped traffic on the highways and incinerated at least 30 trucks. Even medical providers were not spared. Gangs stoned ambulances, preventing them from caring for rioting victims and people suffering from everyday illnesses. A representative for the ambulance company said, “There is no access to medical treatment for these sick patients.”
Rioters proceeded to attack one another inside Johannesburg’s Hillbrow clinic while they were healing from their wounds, and a mob tried to attack the clinic itself.
“We were in war mode,” said Dr. Suhayl Essa, who was on call at the time South Africa’s News24 reported that Hillbrow treated numerous victims of the unfolding violence, including a six year old who had been shot in the head.
The scenes he saw that day gave him a “glimpse into Hell,” Essa said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 72 people have been killed. In one of the largest tragedies to date, heedless looters rushing into the Ndofaya shopping mall in Soweto crushed 10 of their fellow looters to death.
Many of the gangs reportedly targeted foreign nationals and South Africans of Indian descent, according to multiple news reports. Due to the overwhelmed police forces, potential victims banned together and defended themselves with firearms.
The riots are believed to have been instigated by devotees of Jacob Zuma, a self-described socialist who served as South African president from 2009 to 2018. Zuma faces 16 counts of fraud, money laundering, and racketeering for being part of a multibillion-dollar embezzlement scheme during his time as president.
At times, Zuma has positioned himself to the Left of the South African Communist Party. “Former president Jacob Zuma has taken a swipe at the SACP, accusing it of losing sight of its mission to fight for socialism,” reported South Africa’s TimesLIVE news service last May. In a 2012 address to the Socialist International, Zuma lamented the fact that “many amongst the broad global Left have … abandoned left[ist] projects and ideas after the collapse of the many socialist countries which included the Soviet Union.”
Riots erupted shortly after Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court, after he refused to testify at his corruption trial. The nation’s intelligence service is currently investigating the extent to which Zuma loyalists initiated the violence in KwaZulu-Natal Province, the greatest source of Zuma’s political strength. The leader of the ANC’s Youth League once proclaimed he was “willing to kill for Zuma.”
But the rioting quickly metastasized to other cities including Guateng province, sweeping up a large number of citizens seething with social discontent. South Africans have a 33% unemployment rate, and 20% of South Africans live on less than $2 a day.
President Ramphosa has faced criticism for his lackluster response to the riots. Ramphosa deployed 2,500 members of the nation’s military, the South African National Defence Force, to quell the riots. He deployed 70,000 troops last year to enforce the nation’s COVID-19 lockdowns.
Zuma has appealed his case to South Africa’s Constitutional Court. Thus far, he has made no public statement rebuking the riots that began in his name.
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