Photos from Mexico and the US passed off as South Africa unrest

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Multiple posts shared on Facebook purport to show three images of looting in South Africa during the recent unrest. This is misleading; two of the images are old and were taken in the United States and Mexico.

Facebook posts shared hundreds of times (here and here) from July 13, 2021, include three images of what appear to be white people looting shops.

“Why we don’t see this on TV, looters,” the South African Facebook user’s post reads.

“Please help your neighbour to understand that even white South Africans have participated in looting,” reads another Facebook post with the same set of pictures.

A screenshot of the misleading Facebook post, taken on July 16, 2021

Unrest in South Africa

As reported by AFP, looting and rioting broke out in South Africa a day after ex-president Jacob Zuma started serving a 15-month jail term for ignoring a corruption inquiry on July 8, 2021.

The recent unrest in South Africa claimed 337 lives, spreading through Zuma's home province of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng -- the country’s most populous regions accounting for half of South Africa's GDP.

Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, an interim minister in the president’s office, said on July 21, 2021, that "stability" had returned to the two provinces -- rocked by unprecedented violence in post-apartheid South Africa.

Ntshaveni added that police were carrying out "mopping-up operations to ensure opportunistic and copycat activities do not find traction".

It has so far caused an estimated $3.4 billion of damage.

But during the peak of the violence and looting, multiple misleading photos were shared with the aim of sowing racial division. 

AFP Fact Check used reverse image search tools to trace the origins of each of the three pictures in the Facebook posts.

First picture: Mexico

The first photograph shows people entering and leaving a shop, some with their arms filled with groceries and other goods.

AFP Fact Check has previously debunked this picture when it was shared alongside claims that the looting took place in London.

The original photo was taken by AFP photographer Ronaldo Schemidt on September 15, 2014, in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico.

“People loot a supermarket in San Jose del Cabo, on September 15, 2014, after hurricane Odile knocked down trees and power lines in Mexico's Baja California peninsula,” reads part of the caption.

People loot a supermarket in San Jose del Cabo, on September 15, 2014, after hurricane Odile in Mexico ( AFP / RONALDO SCHEMIDT)

As AFP reported at the time, Hurricane Odile thrashed the Mexican coast, killing six people and causing $1 billion in damage.

Second picture: United States

This photo shows three men in face masks, walking away from a red and grey store with a bullseye for a logo; one of them is holding a mannequin while another appears to be holding two boxed pairs of shoes.

The logo represents Target, a retail giant in the US.

“The photo you’ve shared does appear to be a Target store, and I can confirm that Target does not operate stores in South Africa,” Brian Harper-Tibaldo, a spokesman for the chain, told AFP Fact Check.

He was however unable to determine the location or timing of the photo. 

Several publications in May 2020 (including here and here) reported that Target was temporarily shutting down hundreds of its retail stores after some were looted, as individuals gathered in protest following the murder of George Floyd, a black man who was killed by a white policeman in Minneapolis.

An AFP photographer captured some of the chaos outside a Target in Minneapolis on May 28, 2020.

A protester throws a mannequin onto a burning car outside a Target store near the Third Police Precinct on May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during a demonstration over the death of George Floyd ( AFP / KEREM YUCEL)

Third picture: South Africa

This third picture is recent, showing masked people standing at a traffic light near piles of boxed appliances. One of them, wearing knight-like armour, appears to be holding a shield and another, a baseball bat.

“ZN Cars” can be seen on a building in the background -- and a Google search completed the name as “KZNCars.co.za” which correlates to the multiple claims that this photo was taken in Waterfall, KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, where looting was reported at a shopping mall.  

A director at KZN Cars confirmed to AFP Fact Check that the photo was indeed taken near the company's Waterfall branch during the recent protests. However, he did not believe that the people in the photo were looters. 

Singh said community members had created a barricade in an attempt to prevent looters from coming through. The traffic light in the photograph, Singh explained, is part of the intersection that “links the formal and informal community as such, so the community had been set up there as a border... directly across our shop on the street was a barricade which the community members had put up.”

Ashleigh Bergh, who works a few hundred metres away from the intersection at a tattoo parlour, told AFP Fact Check that “photos of the same people came through the [community watch] group informing us to stay calm in our houses as there were people out there on the frontlines battling against the looters.” 

Tendai Dube