The wave of protest and looting that swept across much of South Africa over the past week was planned by enemies of democracy in a deliberate effort to sow chaos, the president has said.
Speaking to reporters in some of the areas worst hit by the unrest, Cyril Ramaphosa said authorities had identified “a good number” of those who planned and coordinated the violence, the worst in South Africa since the end of the apartheid regime in 1994.
“We will not allow anyone to destroy our democracy. This is a hard-fought-for democracy and we will not allow them to mess it up. We are ready to defend our country and to defend our democracy … We will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country,” Ramaphosa said.
The president’s visit to KwaZulu-Natal province was his first appearance on the ground since unrest broke out in the south-eastern province before spreading to Johannesburg, the commercial capital of the country, and other parts of the populous Gauteng province.
The violence has claimed 117 lives and caused massive economic damage.
The immediate trigger for the chaos was the imprisonment of the former president Jacob Zuma, who began a 15-month jail term last week. Zuma loyalists and close aides are among those suspected by authorities of organising the wave of violence. KwaZulu Natal is the stronghold of the former leader, who faces a raft of corruption charges.
The protests evolved rapidly into wholesale looting of shopping malls but were also accompanied by attacks on communications facilities, railways, ports, roads and other critical infrastructure – targets that security experts say suggest a campaign of deliberate sabotage aimed at making the country ungovernable.
More than 10,000 soldiers are on the streets to reinforce overwhelmed police, with armoured vehicles deployed in some areas.
“It is no longer just thuggery, this is economic sabotage … It is a threat to our people so you have to restore that freedom,” said the head of the armed forces, Lieut-Gen Rudzani Maphwanya, addressing soldiers in Alexandra, Johannesburg.
Police told reporters calm had been restored to Gauteng though sporadic looting of malls and stores including foreign-owned neighbourhood groceries continued in parts of KwaZulu-Natal. There were overnight reports of several incidents of arson targeting retail outlets.
However, the 600km main road linking the commercial heart of the country to Durban, the biggest port and the centre of the violence, has reopened after being blocked for days, allaying fears of shortages of food and fuel.
“It is vitally important to proceed with extreme caution and to stay alert at all times,” said the highway authority in a tweet on Friday. Motorists were advised to use the road and others in KwaZulu-Natal only if necessary, said South Africa’s Automobile Association. Trains and many other services in the two provinces hit by the unrest were still restricted, however.
The extent of the devastation is far from clear. South Africa’s consumer goods regulatory body said earlier this week that more than 800 retail shops had been looted, while in KwaZulu Natal, goods worth between $400m and $1bn have been stolen or destroyed, according to initial industry estimates.
More than 200 shopping malls have been destroyed, damaged or looted, scores of telecommunication towers put out of action and port facilities reportedly damaged. Attacks on chemical plants have led to dangerous and polluting spills.
Dozens of factories producing food and medicine were also looted. This, combined with attacks on clinics, has left hundreds of thousands suffering chronic conditions without medication in KwaZulu Natal, which has some of the highest rates of HIV in the world.
The unrest has also disrupted South Africa’s much-delayed vaccine rollout and treatment of Covid cases as the country suffers a third wave of infections.
On Thursday, ministers said one of the alleged instigators of the unrest had been detained by law enforcement officers, and others were under surveillance.
Zuma was ousted by Ramaphosa in 2018 and handed himself over to police last week to serve a 15-month jail sentence for refusing to appear before a judicial inquiry investigating corruption during his nine-year rule.
The jailing of the former president was a significant victory for Ramaphosa, who leads a moderate and pragmatic faction of the ruling African National Congress party. In recent months, a series of senior figures who thrived under Zuma have been marginalised, hit with legal cases or forced to relinquish powerful posts.
Zuma’s core supporters say he is the victim of a witch-hunt orchestrated by political opponents. The 79-year-old former anti-apartheid fighter has hitherto remained popular among many poor South Africans, especially in KwaZulu-Natal.