SOWETO, South Africa—Sello Kgoale watched his neighbors shuttling back and forth with looted liquor, refrigerators and flat-screen televisions. There were no police at a nearby mall, they told him, so the 46-year-old father of three joined the thousands-strong mob ransacking the shopping center and filled three bags with rice, cooking oil and paraffin for his family’s cooking stove.
“I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m ashamed,” he said last week, sitting in his corrugated-iron shack. “But we just keep getting hit.”
Sixteen months ago, Mr. Kgoale lived in a rented two-bedroom house and had a steady cleaning job, while his wife worked in a call center. South Africa’s first wave of Covid-19 infections took the lives of his mother-in-law and grandmother. The second cost him his job and then his home. The third destroyed his efforts to start a new business. “I came to Johannesburg 21 years ago from the north, full of hope,” he said. “Now we have nothing left but anger.”
Wave after wave of coronavirus is pummeling South Africa’s fragile economy and its largely unvaccinated population, creating a spiral of death, lockdowns and anger that has fueled the country’s worst rioting since the collapse of white minority rule in 1994. At least 215 people died in the violence across South Africa’s two most populous provinces, and more than 3,400 have been arrested. While the looting had quieted by Monday, the situation remains tense in parts of the country.
The violence was initially sparked by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma earlier this month, and has exacerbated a power struggle within the African National Congress, South Africa’s ruling party since Nelson Mandela’s election as the country’s first Black president 27 years ago. President Cyril Ramaphosa has said the unrest was an attempted insurrection against South Africa’s democracy and intended to sabotage its economy.