By Alexander Winning and Wendell Roelf
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) -Crowds clashed with police and ransacked or burned shopping malls in South Africa on Tuesday, with dozens reported killed as grievances unleashed by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma boiled over into the worst violence in years.
Protests that followed Zuma’s arrest last week have widened into looting and an outpouring of generalized anger over inequality that persists 27 years after the fall of apartheid. Poverty has been exacerbated by severe social and economic restrictions aimed at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Security officials said the government was working to halt the spread of the violence and looting, which has so far spread from Zuma’s home in KwaZulu-Natal province to Gauteng province surrounding the country’s biggest city Johanesburg. They deployed soldiers onto the streets to try to contain it, but stopped short of declaring a state of emergency.
“No amount of unhappiness or personal circumstances from our people gives the right to anyone to loot, vandalize and do as they please and break the law,” Police Minister Bheki Cele told a news conference, echoing sentiments expressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa overnight.
The bodies of 10 people were found on Monday evening after a stampede at a Soweto shopping mall, premier David Makhura said.
Hundreds of looters raided warehouses and supermarkets in Durban, one of the busiest shipping terminals on the African continent and a major import-export hub.
Outside a Durban warehouse of retailer Game, Reuters filmed looters stuffing cars with electronic goods and clothes. Inside, the floor was a wreckage of discarded packaging as the crowd systematically emptied the shelves.
Aerial footage from local channel eNCA showed black smoke rising from several warehouses, while debris lay strewn.
Troops were moving into flashpoints on Tuesday as outnumbered police seemed helpless to stop the unrest. Columns of armored personnel carriers rolled down highways.
The rand, which had been one of the best performing emerging market currencies during the pandemic, dropped to a three-month low on Tuesday, and local and hard currency bonds suffered.
At least 45 people have so far been killed during the unrest, 19 in Gauteng and 26 in KwaZulu-Natal, according to state and provincial authorities. Police Minister Cele put the official death toll at 10.
On the streets, protesters hurled stones and police responded with rubber bullets, Reuters journalists said.
In Soweto, police and military were patrolling as shop owners assessed the damage.
Cele said 757 people had been arrested so far. He said the government would act to prevent it from spreading further and warned that people would not be allowed “to make a mockery of our democratic state”.
Defense Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, speaking at the same news conference, said she did not think a state of emergency should be imposed yet.
Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018.
The legal proceedings have been seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa’s ability to enforce the rule of law.
But any confrontation with soldiers risks fueling charges by Zuma and his supporters that they are victims of a politically motivated crackdown by his successor, Ramaphosa.
The violence worsened as Zuma challenged his 15-month jail term in South Africa’s top court on Monday. Judgement was reserved until an unspecified date.
The deteriorating situation pointed to wider problems and unfulfilled expectations that followed the end of white minority rule in 1994. The economy is struggling to emerge from the damage wrought by Africa’s worst COVID-19 epidemic, with authorities repeatedly imposing restrictions on businesses.
Growing joblessness has left people ever more desperate. Unemployment stood at a new record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021.
(Additional reporting by Siyabonga Sishi in Durban and Tim Cocks, Siphiwe Sibeko and Tanisha Heiberg in Johannesburg; Writing by Angus MacSwan and Tim CocksEditing by Peter Graff)