Death toll rises in South Africa riots over Zuma jailing

The death toll rose to 72 in South Africa Tuesday following riots and unrest that began last week after the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma.

Former president Jacob Zuma jailed for contempt of court

A patrolling soldier looks at damaged stores in a shopping centre in Soweto near Johannesburg on Tuesday as looting and violence continues in the wake of the imprisonment of former South African president Jacob Zuma. (Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press)

Police in South Africa say 72 people have been killed and 1,234 have been arrested following riots and unrest set off by last week's imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.

In a statement issued Tuesday night, police Maj. Gen. Mathapelo Peters said many of the deaths were caused by stampedes when shops were being looted. He said 27 deaths are being investigated in KwaZulu-Natal province and 45 in Gauteng province. 

In addition to the deaths in the stampedes, Peters said police are investigating shooting deaths as well as deaths that appear to be a result of explosions caused by people trying to break into ATM machines.

Police said hundreds have been arrested in the lawlessness that has raged in poor areas of the two provinces, where a community radio station was ransacked and forced off the air Tuesday and some COVID-19 vaccination centres were closed, disrupting urgently needed inoculations.

WATCH | South Africa beset by riots, unrest:

Riots, looting in South Africa after Jacob Zuma jailed

2 months ago
Protests against the jailing of former South African president Jacob Zuma have ballooned into massive riots and looting across the country. Supporters of Zuma, who is on trial for corruption, see his treatment as symbolic of the current government's repressive policies. 1:49

Zuma refused to testify at state-backed inquiry

Sporadic violence broke out Thursday last week, after Zuma began serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court.

He had refused to comply with a court order to testify at a state-backed inquiry investigating allegations of corruption during his presidential term from 2009 to 2018.

The unrest then spiraled into a spree of looting in township areas of the two provinces, witnesses said. Although the violence has not spread to South Africa's other seven provinces, police have said they are on alert.

"The criminal element has hijacked this situation," said Premier David Makhura of Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg.

More than 400 people were arrested in Gauteng, but he said the situation was far from under control.

A woman carrying groceries on her head walks past a damaged KFC fast food restaurant at the Naledi shopping complex in Vosloorus, east of Johannesburg, on Monday. (Themba Hadebe/The Associated Press)

"We understand that those unemployed have inadequate food. We understand that the situation has been made worse by the pandemic," an emotional Makhura said on the state South African Broadcasting Corp.

"But this looting is undermining our businesses here [in Soweto]. It is undermining our economy, our community. It is undermining everything."

As he spoke, the broadcast showed police trying to bring order to the Ndofaya shopping mall, where 10 people were crushed to death in a looting stampede. A couple of gunshots could be heard.

Makhura appealed for leaders of political, religious and community organizations to urge people to stop the looting.

At least 19 had been killed in Gauteng, including 10 at the mall in the Meadowlands area of Soweto, Makhura said.

In KwaZulu-Natal province, at least 26 were killed, with many being crushed in the shops, Premier Sihle Zikalala told media Tuesday.

Soldiers called in

The deployment of 2,500 soldiers to support the South African police has not stopped the rampant looting, although arrests are being made in some areas of Johannesburg, including Vosloorus in the eastern part of the city.

Looting continued Tuesday in Johannesburg shopping malls in township areas including Jabulani Mall and Dobsonville Mall in Soweto. There were also reports of continued looting in KwaZulu-Natal.

Authorities have repeatedly warned Zuma supporters and relatives against using social media to encourage the riots.

The Constitutional Court, the country's highest court, heard Zuma's application to have his sentence rescinded on Monday. Zuma's lawyer presented his arguments that the top court made errors when sentencing him to prison. 

After 10 hours of testimony on Monday, the court judges said they would study the arguments and announce their decision at a later date.