More than 70 people have been killed in the unrest
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Wednesday he might order more troops onto the streets as the army and police struggled to quell days of looting and violence, while some citizens armed themselves to protect their property and businesses from the rampage.
More than 70 people have been killed in the unrest, the worst in South Africa for years, and hundreds of businesses wrecked. Food and fuel supplies are running short.
Triggered by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma last week after he failed to appear at a corruption inquiry, its has widened into an orgy of looting and an outpouring of anger over the hardship and inequality that persist in South Africa 27 years after the end of apartheid.
Shopping malls and warehouses have been ransacked or set ablaze in several cities, mostly in Zuma's home in KwaZulu-Natal province, especially the Indian Ocean port city of Durban, and the financial and economic centre Johannesburg and surrounding Gauteng province.
Soldiers have been deployed to help outnumbered police contain the unrest. Security forces say they have arrested more than 1,200 people, but the government has held back from imposing a state of emergency.
Ramaphosa met with leaders of political parties on Wednesday to discuss ways to address the unrest.
"President Ramaphosa welcomed proposals made by political leaders and said expanded deployment of the South African National Defence Force was being addressed," a government statement said.
The violence appeared to have abated in some areas on Wednesday, but in others, there was renewed burning and looting.
Citizens armed with guns, many from South Africa's white minority, blocked off streets to prevent further plundering, Reuters TV footage showed. One man shouted at a group gathered at a street corner: "Go home and protect your homes."
Other residents crowded outside supermarkets waiting for them to open so they could stock up on essentials.
Some rich Durban residents chartered small planes and helicopters out of the city, a Reuters photographer reported. Others queued for food and fuel. Many roads out of the city were blocked either by looting or vigilantes.
Earlier, several shops were being looted in the town of Hammarsdale, KwaZulu-Natal.
Plumes of black smoke rose from a burning warehouse in Durban, while nearby people loaded up with goods scattered on the roadside.
In Alexandra township in Johannesburg on Wednesday, one of the city's poorest neighbourhoods, a Reuters correspondent saw soldiers moving door to door to confiscate stolen items, with the help of civilians opposed to the looting.
In Soweto, eNCA television footage showed civilians alongside police protecting malls that were yet to be hit by rioters.
Overnight the chaos spread to two other provinces - Mpumalanga, just east of Gauteng, and Northern Cape, police said.
The unrest also disrupted hospitals struggling to cope with a third wave of Covid-19.
The National Hospital Network (NHN), representing 241 public hospitals already under strain from Africa's worst Covid-19 epidemic, said it was running out of oxygen and drugs, most of which are imported through Durban, as well as food.
"The impact of the looting and destruction is having dire consequences on hospitals," the NHN said.
Staff in affected areas were unable to get to work, it said, worsening shortages caused by the pandemic.
The poverty and inequality fuelling the violence has been compounded by severe social and economic restrictions aimed at curbing Covid-19. The United Nations in South Africa expressed concern that disruptions to transport for workers from the riots would also exacerbate the problems.
The rand is hovering around three-month lows, a retreat for what had been one of the best performing emerging market currencies during the pandemic.
South Africa's largest refinery SAPREF in Durban has been temporarily shut down, an industry official said on Wednesday.
The mayor of Ethekwini, the municipality that includes Durban, estimated that $1 billion had been lost in damage to property and another billion in loss of stock.
Some 40,000 businesses had been hit by the unrest, he said.
"A large portion of these may never recover," he told reporters on Wednesday, which put almost 130,000 jobs at risk.
Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying a court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level looting during his nine years in office until 2018.
He also faces trial in a separate case on charges including corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering. The former president pleaded not guilty in court in May. His foundation said on Tuesday that violence would continue until his release.
Though triggered by Zuma's imprisonment, the unrest reflects growing frustration at failures by the ruling African National Congress to address inequality decades after the end of white minority rule in 1994 ushered in democracy.
Roughly half the population lives below the poverty line, according to the latest government figures from 2015, and growing joblessness since the pandemic has left many desperate. Unemployment stood at a new record high of 32.6% in the first three months of 2021.