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South Africa remained tense on Tuesday, with police and the military struggling to quell the violence in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces and at least 32 people confirmed killed in the unrest.

Johannesburg shopping centres in township areas, including Jabulani Mall and Dobsonville Mall in Soweto, bore the brunt of the violence that escalated following the imprisonment of South Africa's former president Jacob Zuma.

The riots also affected the Mayfield Shopping Centre in Daveyton township, where security forces struggled to stop scores of people from ransacking stores.

Many of the deaths occurred in chaotic stampedes as scores of people tried to steal food, electric appliances, liquor, and clothing from retail centres, according to the premier of KwaZulu-Natal.

In Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province which includes the largest city, Johannesburg, at least six people were killed, officials said.

The deployment of 2,500 soldiers to support the South African police has not yet stopped the unrest, although arrests were being made at some areas in Johannesburg, including Vosloorus.

The violence started in KwaZulu-Natal last week as protests against the imprisonment of Zuma, who began serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court.

He was convicted of defying a court order to testify before a state-backed inquiry probing allegations of corruption during his term as president from 2009 to 2018.

The sporadic pro-Zuma violence spiralled into a spree of criminal theft in poor, township areas of the two provinces, according to witnesses.

So far the lawlessness has not spread to South Africa's other nine provinces.