‘Little to lose’: Poverty and despair fuel South Africa’s unrest

South Africa is facing its worst unrest in decades as protests over the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma have led to spiralling violence and looting.

At least 72 people have died in six consecutive days of violent clashes between police and protesters and in stampedes by looting mobs. More than 1,200 people have been arrested so far.

What initially started as a protest against the jailing of Zuma on Friday for contempt of court has mushroomed into grievances over inequality and poverty that have rocked the country.

President Cyril Ramaphosa has deployed 2,500 soldiers to Gauteng and Kwazulu-Natal, the two provincial epicentres of the unrest, to aid police that have been largely outnumbered and unable to deal with the unfolding chaos.

‘We are hungry’

Thousands of businesses have been ransacked or forced to close their doors for fear of violence.

“We are not open because we will be looted of equipment that took us decades to afford and my staff of 14 must stay at home until its safe,” Humphrey Jeffries*, owner of a trucking components business in the Johannesburg Central Business District, told Al Jazeera.

“After 48 years of being in business, we face the real prospect of layoffs and even closure now. We managed to get through the initial COVID-19 madness of lockdowns, but this is too much now.”

So far 200 malls and shopping centres countrywide have been forced to close by the violence, with everything from food supplies and medicines to flat-screen TVs and clothing being carried off during the looting.

Jabulani Mall in Soweto, the country’s biggest township, has been completely gutted by looting and vandalism. Business owners tried to rescue the little stock left behind under the watchful eye of security forces, who were just managing to keep protesting crowds at bay.

“But even if the president does do that, [looting] will carry on because we are hungry too and need things to survive.”

The South African economy had rebounded somewhat since the onset of COVID-19 with gross domestic product (GDP) growth predicted to be up to 3.1 percent in 2021 by the nation’s treasury.

But unemployment has grown to more than 32 percent in a society classified as one of the most unequal in the world, with a Gini coefficient of 63 and more than half the population living in poverty.

The country’s economic recovery has also been compromised by yet another lockdown as South Africa battles a third wave of the coronavirus that has seen more than 2,500 deaths in the past week alone.

“But this kind of instability cripples any attempt to reconstruct this economy for the benefit of all and the poorest of the poor will lose the most from this with more job losses and government finances unable to support people joining the poverty line.”

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