The targeting of Soweto area shops owned by immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia and other countries recalled a wave of deadly violence against foreigners in South Africa in 2008.
But police sought to downplay allegations that xenophobia was the cause of this week’s unrest, instead saying groups of young people, some in school uniform, were indiscriminately looting wherever they could.
“The youth who are addicted to drugs... are taking advantage of this situation,” provincial police commissioner Lesetja Mothiba said in a statement.
“They are targeting specific items from the shops,” including cash and cigarettes.
The violence started on Monday when a foreign shopowner shot a 14-year-old boy in Soweto who was allegedly trying to rob his shop, according to the South African Press Association.
Another man, believed to be a foreign national, was killed during the days of looting.
Police stood guard as Ethiopian, Somali, Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationals packed up the stock from their shops, and loaded it onto trucks that were escorted by police out of Soweto.
Police reinforcements were sent to the township, though some video footage showed police standing by as looters emerged from pillaged buildings.
In one instance, a police officer was accused of participating in the looting. The officer, who was filmed, will be charged, according to the provincial head of community safety, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane.