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72 killed as South Africa grapples with its worst political violence since apartheid

Looting and riots across South Africa
Looting and rioting break out across South Africa in wake of former President Zuma’s imprisonment 02:40

Johannesburg — South Africa is grappling with the worst political violence the country has seen since the end of the racist apartheid regime. The death toll after five days of violent riots and looting, sparked by the jailing of former President Jacob Zuma, hit at least 72 on Wednesday.

Some of the most violent unrest has been in Alexandra township, a suburb of Johannesburg, where CBS News correspondent Debora Patta said hordes of looters have spent days ransacking retail stores, grabbing anything they can get their hands on. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, the police have struggled to contain the violence.    

Police, backed up by soldiers deployed as the mayhem escalated this week, have fired rubber bullets and teargas, but the looters are undeterred. Patta saw one road in Alexandra where not a single shop had escaped attack. They were all gutted.

Violence And Looting Continue In Gauteng
South African police and a soldier walk inside a looted shop, July 13, 2021, in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa. James Oatway/Getty

Dozens have been killed and injured in the chaos. In one heart-stopping moment, a toddler was rescued from a building set ablaze by rioters.

The violence was triggered by anger over the arrest and imprisonment of Zuma last week. He was jailed for refusing to appear before a commission investigating corruption during his nine-year tenure.  

His supporters took to the streets to voice their anger, but it boiled over into anarchic rage fueled by persistent poverty that's been exacerbated by a deadly third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

For some shop-owners — victims of that rage — it was all too much.

"What have they done!" wept one owner at their gutted business.

Over 1,000 arrests have been made, and the South African military has been deployed to hot spots. But thrown into the volatile mix now, are armed militias, taking the law into their own hands.

A South Africa Police Service (SAPS) officer aims his rifle at a in incoming minivan bringing it to a stop in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, July 12, 2021, during clashes with residents of the Wolhuter Men's Hostel amid widespread looting and riots in the region. MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty

"If they start shooting there will be war, and that's the thing we don't want here in South Africa," said one man on the streets. "South Africa is a peaceful country."  

But for five straight days, that peace has been shattered by the deadliest violence the country has seen in the more than 27 years since apartheid ended.

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