Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s president, attempted to contain a growing sense of national crisis over anti-foreigner riots and several murders of young women that triggered nationwide protests.
Mr Ramaphosa said that “our nation is in mourning and pain” in a televised national address on Thursday, amid rising levels of public anger in Africa’s most industrialised nation over growing signs of lawlessness.
At least 10 people have died this week in urban violence that targeted foreign nationals while thousands have taken to the streets to demand that Mr Ramaphosa’s government take action to protect women after a brutal spate of killings.
Mr Ramaphosa said “these acts of violence have made us doubt the very foundations of our democratic society”. He pledged to deal with a scourge that has been symbolised this week by the rape and murder of a 19-year-old University of Cape Town student, Uyinene Mrwetyana.
Her killing caused national shock as it took place in a state post office, underlining a sense of impunity for killers of women.
Earlier on Thursday, Mr Ramaphosa was booed and heckled outside the South African parliament by thousands of protesters who vented their fury at state inaction. Ms Mrwetyana’s face was on many of the placards as protesters chanted “enough is enough” and “no more”.
“It feels like a very big moment, like the woman in the Sudan revolution . . . like she’s going to be the face of big change,” said Ferial Haffajee, a South African journalist and commentator.
In his address Mr Ramaphosa said the government would bring in harsher minimum sentences for crimes against women and children and provide more funding for investigations. But he is battling against rot in institutions that was bequeathed to him by Jacob Zuma, his predecessor.
During Mr Zuma’s presidency the South African police and the national prosecuting authority were undermined, allegedly in order to provide impunity for systemic looting of government resources, known as “state capture” in South Africa. Mr Zuma denies wrongdoing.
Rebuilding of these institutions has barely begun since Mr Ramaphosa replaced Mr Zuma last year in a battle within the ruling African National Congress. An anti-graft campaign launched by Mr Ramaphosa has lost ground as Mr Zuma’s allies in the ANC have fought back.
On Thursday, Mr Ramaphosa also called for calm over the “deeply traumatising” attacks targeting African nationals, which have led to hundreds of arrests.
Nigeria has recalled its high commissioner in South Africa and several African governments have criticised the violence.
African migrants to South Africa are often scapegoated over high levels of crime and unemployment. “No amount of anger and frustration and grievance can justify such acts of destruction and criminality,” said Mr Ramaphosa.