More than 70 people have died and major infrastructure has been damaged after days of rioting and looting in parts of South Africa.

The widespread disorder has affected thousands of businesses as people have been filling up their cars and trucks with stolen food and other goods in two of the country’s nine provinces – KwaZulu-Natal, where Durban is located, and Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg.

Here we take a look at the events that have led to South Africa dealing with some of its worst unrest since the end of white minority rule in 1994.

The former president is sent to jail

The unrest broke out after ex-president Jacob Zuma handed himself over to start a 15-month prison sentence for contempt of court last week.

The 79-year-old’s supporters believe the former leader is the victim of a political witch-hunt and have burned tyres and blocked roads in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal.

Support for Zuma stems partly from his image as a man of the people during his nine years in power until 2018.

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‘Out of control’ looting at South African warehouses

Some see his jailing as an attack on the nation’s largest ethnic group, the Zulu.

Many wealthy and middle-class South Africans were overjoyed when Zuma was ousted after multiple sleaze and graft allegations, but he still retains loyal followings in KwaZulu-Natal and some poor, rural areas.

His support among the population mirrors a division within the governing African National Congress (ANC), where a pro-Zuma faction opposes his successor President Cyril Ramaphosa.

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Fires and looting of Durban warehouses

Widespread poverty and inequality

The hardship that persists 27 years after the end of apartheid in 1994 is a major reason why hundreds of shops and dozens of malls have been stripped bare.

Statistics agency data show roughly half of the country’s 35 million adults live below the poverty line and that young people are disproportionately affected by unemployment.

South Africa has one of the highest levels of inequality in the world according to the commonly-used Gini index, with a “dual economy” catering to a small, mostly white elite, and large, mainly black majority.

Moves by the ANC, which has governed since the start of democratic rule, to redistribute land and wealth have progressed slowly.


The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated poverty, with a recent survey showing a sharp increase in hunger.

Official unemployment hit a record high above 32% in the first three months of 2021.

Although the government increased social grants to cushion the pandemic, it cannot afford to match the costly furlough schemes of wealthier nations.

Criminal elements

South African police have said some criminals have been taking advantage of anger over Zuma’s imprisonment by stealing and damaging property.

So far more than 1,200 people have been arrested as the chaos in the country has left at least 72 people dead.

Many of the deaths were caused by chaotic stampedes as thousands of people have stolen food, electric appliances, alcohol and clothing from stores, police said.

Inflammatory messages

People linked with Zuma, including his own daughter Duduzile, are fanning the violence with inflammatory comments and social media posts, security officials say.

Mzwanele Manyi, a spokesman for Zuma’s charitable foundation, attributed some early acts of violence to “righteous anger”.

Manyi told the Reuters news agency that the violence could have been avoided and that the manner in which Zuma was jailed reminded people of the apartheid days.

Meanwhile, an account bearing Duduzile’s name has repeatedly posted images and videos of protests and violence on Twitter with the rallying cry “Amandla!” (Power!) used during the liberation struggle.

The ANC has said it is concerned by the tweets and that party member Duduzile will have to explain herself.

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