The head of the top body of property owners in South Africa on Thursday described the ongoing looting and arson in the country as "hallmarks of an attempted coup" and called for President Cyril Ramaphosa to impose a total lockdown to address the situation.
The violence began last Wednesday after former president Jacob Zuma began serving his 15-month sentence in a contempt of court case. The riots have led to 72 deaths and over 1,200 arrests. Several factories and vital supply routes were burnt down in the violence.
The protests started with a call to release 79-year-old Zuma from jail, but have now devolved into massive looting and destruction of infrastructure.
Though President Cyril Ramaphosa has deployed the Army and police, they are found outnumbered in many areas by the rioters.
"When people are destroying cell phone towers, when people are blowing up reservoirs and attacking other infrastructure in the country, these are hallmarks of a coup or an attempted coup," Neil Gopal, CEO of South African Property Owners Association (SAPOA), told news website Moneyweb.
"We need to go back up to (the highest) Level 5 (of the COVID-19 lockdown) because we were there last year; the blueprint exists. Crime rates were at zero.
"Everybody was in the house, communities were in their houses, so we need to get back there; and soldiers were deployed last year. So we can get there. It's senseless calling the army to a shopping centre which has already been looted or burnt down. We need to stop the people from actually getting to the shopping centres to cause all this destruction," Gopal said.
Gopal was speaking after SAPOA earlier on Thursday held a media briefing to unpack some of the issues surrounding the ongoing looting and destruction of shopping centres, retail outlets and distribution centres.
SAPOA represents over 800 organisations within the commercial property sector, with 90 per cent of the nation's commercial real estate being owned by the association's members.
SAPOA said that over 800 stores have been looted and around 100 shopping malls have been either burnt down completely or have suffered significant damage due to fire.
A number of distribution centres particularly in the port city of Ethekwini (formerly Durban) in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) province have been looted, with serious structural destruction left by rampaging mobs who stripped everything from ceilings to counters and in many cases setting the buildings alight.
Latest estimates have put losses at over 20 billion rands in the province, according to the eThekwini Economic Development and Planning Committee, which added that over 50,000 informal traders have lost their livelihoods, approximately 1.5 million people have lost their potential to earn an income and there are some 150,000 jobs at risk.
The violent mobs have been on the rampage for a seventh consecutive day, overwhelming the police and soldiers who were deployed on Monday night by Ramaphosa.
On Wednesday, the president announced that 25,000 more soldiers are to be deployed to support the 2,5000 already protecting strategic installations which intelligence agencies said were initially targeted.
The military has already moved in on to clear up burnt trucks and blockades set up on the arterial routes from the port city of Ethekwini, from which 90 per cent of South Africa's imports are moved inland.
There are already severe shortages of food and medicines in KZN and Gauteng provinces as people scramble to secure the limited supplies in stores which escape the looting.
The rioters have been burning vehicles and factories, looting stores, and blockading main routes in the city since Friday night in response to social media calls themed #FreeJacobZuma and #KZNShutdown.
Zuma started a 15-month sentence last week after the country's apex court found him guilty of contempt of court because he refused to return to the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture, where he has been repeatedly accused of involvement in corruption by witnesses.
"We have seen violent incidents which from the beginning appeared to have arisen as a response to the incarceration of former president Comrade Jacob Zuma, but have now unfolded into an unprecedented and extremely disturbing situation as it poses a threat to human life and carries the potential to destabilise our country at a time when we are all trying to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic," KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala had earlier said.