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A man suspected of looting is arrested at a shopping mall in Soweto, near Johannesburg, Tuesday July 13, 2021. © 2021 Themba Hadebe/AP Photo

(Johannesburg) – South African authorities should ensure that security forces deployed to police escalating riots and looting respect rights and observe international law enforcement standards, Human Rights Watch said today.

The riots, which are concentrated in the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, have claimed at least 45 lives and were initially triggered by the imprisonment on July 7, 2021 of former President Jacob Zuma for contempt of court after he failed to attend an inquiry into corruption during his presidency. President Cyril Ramaphosa, in a nationwide address on July 12, acknowledged that notwithstanding the initial trigger, the widespread looting is also driven by hardship and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, guaranteed under international law and South Africa’s constitution, does not protect violence and looting.

“South African authorities should take steps to protect everyone’s life and property from unlawful violence,” said Dewa Mavhinga, southern Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There are a range of measures they can take to restore law and order, and there is no justification for the unlawful use of force.”

Ramaphosa said that he had “…authorized the deployment of Defence Force personnel in support of the operations of the South African Police Service.” He added that the government will take action to protect every person in the country against the threat of violence, intimidation, theft, and looting. He said that 166 suspects had been arrested in KwaZulu-Natal province and another 323 have been detained in Gauteng province in relation to the riots and looting.

Ramaphosa identified 10 people who had died during the riots in Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces: Nkosikhona Chiza, Ndumiso Shezi, Khaya Mkhize, Zethembe Ndwandwe, Lindani Bhengu and Lindokuhle Gumede, Bhekani Ndlovu, Themba Mthembu, Aphiwe Gama, and Cebo Dlamini. Human Rights Watch was unable to establish how they died. The public South African Broadcasting Corporation and news channel Newzroom Afrika reported that the equipment of some of their journalists covering the riots had been stolen.

The South African government should publicly affirm that the deployed security forces are required to abide by the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The principles stipulate that law enforcement officials shall, as far as possible, apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms “only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.” Further, the principles state that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.

Beyond the immediate task of safeguarding the lives of residents, Human Rights Watch said, Ramaphosa and his government should adopt robust and meaningful measures to improve enjoyment of critical social and economic rights, which are being undermined by widespread unemployment, inequality, poverty, and corruption. These issues are among the root causes of the frequent violent protests experienced in South Africa, including looting and violence targeting foreign nationals.

Ramaphosa acknowledged in his statement that, “This moment has thrown into stark relief what we already knew: that the level of unemployment, poverty, and inequality in our society is unsustainable. We cannot expect a lasting and durable peace if we do not create jobs and build a more just and equitable society in which all South Africans can participate freely and equally.”  

“A rights-respecting response to the ongoing violent riots requires professional and effective law enforcement,” Mavhinga said. “Any use of excessive and disproportionate force would only worsen the situation.”

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