Unrest swiftly degenerated into looting which destroyed hundreds of businesses and killed over 200 people, driven by widespread anger over the poverty and inequality that persist nearly three decades after the end of white minority rule.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the unrest that has ripped through South Africa in the past week was stabilising and calm has been restored to most of the affected areas, but the destruction will cost the country billions of rands.
Ramaphosa was addressing the nation on Friday over the rioting that broke out in several parts of the country last week after his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, was jailed for failing to appear at a corruption inquiry.
The unrest swiftly degenerated into looting which has destroyed hundreds of businesses and killed over 200 people, driven by widespread anger over the poverty and inequality that persist nearly three decades after the end of white minority rule.
The police has arrested over 2,500 people suspected to be involved in inciting violence and that these cases are being prioritised, Ramaphosa said.
"It is our firm view that the deployment of our security forces, working together with communities and social partners across the country, will be able to restore order and prevent further violence," he said.
"We will extinguish the fires that are raging, and stamp out every last ember."
The president said using the pretext of a political grievance, those behind these acts have sought to provoke a popular insurrection.
"They have sought to exploit the social and economic conditions under which many South Africans live," he said.
The destruction we see on the roads in the aftermath of the looting just isn’t the South Africa we want for future generations.— Vision Tactical (@visiontactical) July 14, 2021
The @visiontactical Green Team has been focusing on clearing roads that have been blocked with burnt tyres & debris @CityofJoburgZA @CityofJoburgEMS pic.twitter.com/wwsh5oRmLe
"Week from hell"
The long-term social and economic cost of the unrest was also becoming clearer, with calls for the government to address underlying problems to head off more violence and despair.
Wall Street bank JPMorgan said the unrest would force South Africa's economy to contract by 3 percent in the third quarter and drag down full-year growth.
The head of the armed forces, Lieutenant General Rudzani Maphwanya, addressing soldiers in Alexandra, Johannesburg, said: "It is no longer just thuggery, this is economic sabotage...It is a threat to our people so you have to restore that freedom."
Political commentators called it a week from hell.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation - a legacy of the late leader of the anti-apartheid struggle and South Africa's first Black president - said violence had been growing at "disturbing levels" in the last two decades.
"There are too many people feeling discarded and in despair, too many people with nothing to lose, too many people who have seen political and other elites at all levels play fast and loose with the law, with impunity," the foundation said.
The head of Statistics South Africa, Risenga Maluleke, said it could take years to rebuild damaged infrastructure, and small businesses "will find it difficult to rise from the ashes".
This would lead to even more unemployment, he said. Most of the people in the streets were youths with few job prospects and limited education opportunities.
Half of South Africans live below the official poverty line and unemployment stood at a record 32 percent in the first three months of 2021, due partly to the impact of Covid-19.
The president acknowledged that the country's state security system was poorly prepared for the orchestrated campaign that destabilised the country.
"We must admit that we did not have the capabilities and plans in place to respond swiftly and decisively," he said.
The ransacking of stores has led to shortages of essential goods.
State logistics group Transnet said operations at Durban and Richards Bay ports were improving although road closures and fuel and food shortages were constraining its supply chain. Richards Bay had cleared all its shipping backlogs.
Retailer Massmart said protesters had looted 41 of its stores and two distribution centres, with four sites damaged by arson.
Ramaphosa, however, said there was no shortage of food and supplies and urged people to not to resort to panic buying.
He has authorised the deployment of 25,000 armed forces members, who will protect all key installations and commercial sites vital to the functioning of the economy.
He ruled out that he would need to impose emergency in the country.
The official death toll stood at 180 in KwaZulu-Natal - Zuma's homeland and main support base - and 32 in Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, making a total of 212, Ramaphosa said.
The destruction of property and theft of goods has cost businesses, consumers and the country as a whole billions of rands, Ramaphosa said, and its impact will linger for "weeks and months to come."
Cedric Masondo, managing director of Sasria, a state-owned insurer, told Reuters on Wednesday that the claims for damage and theft from businesses affected by civil unrest are likely to top $693.77 million, highest ever the company has ever paid.
If only the world listened to the warnings about South Africa, maybe it wouldn’t look like this today.— Avi Yemini 🇦🇺🇮🇱 (@OzraeliAvi) July 16, 2021
Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying an order to give evidence at a judicial inquiry probing high-level graft during his time in office from 2009 to 2018.
He has pleaded not guilty in a separate case on charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering, saying he is the victim of a political witch-hunt.
His downfall has opened up a power struggle within the African National Congress (ANC), in power since the end of apartheid in 1994. Zuma loyalists make up the strongest faction opposed to Ramaphosa.
His corruption trial will resume in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Monday.