South Africa deployed soldiers on Monday to quell violence that erupted following the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, after days of riots left at least six people dead.
Police said disturbances had intensified as Zuma challenged his 15-month prison term in the country’s top court.
The sporadic pro-Zuma protests that broke out when he handed himself over last week have escalated into looting and arson, mainly in KwaZulu-Natal but also in Gauteng where the country’s biggest city, Johannesburg, is located.
Some COVID-19 vaccination sites and clinics in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal were shuttered due to safety concerns, the Gauteng provincial government and an independent pharmacy association said, further delaying a sluggish immunisation campaign.
“What we are witnessing now are opportunistic acts of criminality, with groups of people instigating chaos merely as a cover for looting and theft,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a late-evening address on Monday.
He said 489 suspects in the two provinces had been arrested and all government agencies had been mobilised.
“We will not hesitate to arrest and prosecute those who perpetrate these actions and will ensure that they face the full might of our law.”
He warned that the looting of shopping centres, pharmacies and disruption to supply chains could lead to food and medicine shortages in the coming weeks, as well as disruption to the coronavirus vaccination drive.
A statement from the military said “pre-deployment processes had started” following a request for assistance from a government intelligence body.
Any confrontation with soldiers risks fuelling charges by Zuma and his supporters that they are victims of a politically motivated crackdown by his successor, Ramaphosa.
Zuma, 79, was sentenced late 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 decision to jail him resulted from legal proceedings seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa’s ability to enforce the rule of law, including against powerful politicians.