As Death Toll Reaches 72, Southern African Bishops Call for an End to Violence

“To those who incite this violence and looting for political ends, we call upon them to rise above political interests, to protect life, and to preserve the common good,” the bishop said.

South African flag, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
South African flag, Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, South Africa. (photo: flowcomm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0.) / flowcomm via Flickr (CC BY 2.0.))

JOHANNESBURG — Catholic bishops in Southern Africa have called for an end to violence and looting that has led to the deaths of 72 people.

People were trampled to death this week amid looting and rioting in the streets of two South African provinces, Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, where violence broke out following the imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma.

The South African Bishop Sithembele Sipuka issued a statement on behalf of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC) on July 13 condemning the violence.

“Let us not allow the difference of opinion on political matters to be hijacked by criminal intentions to create anarchy in our country that will result in worse social and economic situation than we presently find ourselves in,” Bishop Sipuka, the president of the SACBC, said.

“To those who incite this violence and looting for political ends, we call upon them to rise above political interests, to protect life, and to preserve the common good,” the bishop said.

The mass looting began after the former South African president was imprisoned on July 8 for contempt of court for refusing to testify before a judicial commission for an investigation into allegations of corruption during his presidency.

Zuma, who led the country from 2009 to 2018, was sentenced to 15 months in prison for failing to comply with the court order to testify.

“As we navigate some difficult routes of this democratic journey let us continue to choose the path of dialogue to settle our differences as brothers and sisters united by the love of our country and the desire for its prosperity for the good of all who reside and work in it,” Bishop Sipuka said.

The bishop attributed the crisis in the streets partly to the extreme economic inequalities and high unemployment.

“We also realize that the current crisis is due in no small measure to extreme economic inequalities as well as economic hardships suffered by the poor during the pandemic,” he said.

The unemployment rate in South Africa is 32% and more than half of the country’s almost 60 million population is living in poverty.

In the poor areas where the riots occurred, looters stole food, electronics, liquor, and clothing from malls, according to AP. 

There have been reports that President Cyril Ramaphosa is considering raising the number of soldiers deployed to confront the rioting to 25,000 soldiers.

“What started off as a difference of opinion has sparked off a wildfire of violence and looting because the ‘dry grass’ of poverty has been left to ‘overgrow’ over decades,” Bishop Sipuka explained.

“A big contributing factor to this ‘dry grass’ of poverty is the lack of efficient leadership in government and unethical practices in business.” 

The Catholic bishop of Mthatha urged “a return to efficient leadership at all levels of government” to ensure that people can participate meaningfully in the economic system.

“Our society has normalized the use of violence and vandalism to get the government to listen and be serious in addressing economic concerns of the poor. We need a shift in mindset, a collective conversion of heart and mind, which affirms that violent protests and destruction of property can never be a just response to the current economic hardships and economic injustice,” Bishop Sipuka said.

“We reiterate Pope Francis’ call in Fratelli tutti, reminding all that: in face of political and economic problems there is always a possibility of choosing constructive engagement over violence.”