Rioting triggered by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma has escalated and the death toll rose to 45 on Tuesday as police and the military tried to halt the unrest.
Many of the deaths in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces occurred in chaotic stampedes as scores of people stole food, electric appliances, alcohol and clothing from shops.
The Lions left Gauteng on Sunday and have decamped to Cape Town where they will take on South Africa A on Wednesday evening.
Footage of the looting has been shared widely on social media and politicians claim the scene has been hijacked by a criminal element.
It may be too much to expect the redemptive powers of sport to defuse the situation but the senior figures in the Springboks camp are hoping the rugby team can have a unifying influence. South Africa’s triumph at the 2019 Rugby World Cup was celebrated throughout the country and Mzwandile Stick, assistant coach of the Springboks, is hoping the team can at least provide a distraction.
“We are living in a very sad time from what we see on social media and the news on TV,” said Stick. “As Springboks, one of the main things we live for is to put smiles on people’s faces. We want to give them hope.
“I will never forget the images on the streets after we won the World Cup where everyone - pink, black, white, brown, yellow - everyone on the streets was speaking only one language, which was the language of rugby. Everyone was happy at that time and those are the moments we want to create in South Africa. That’s the kind of hope we want to build.
“Hopefully we can do that by getting an opportunity to play against the British and Irish Lions and show the people of South Africa we can work together and start spreading some positive energy. Anything is possible - we can achieve anything as a country.”
The match at Cape Town Stadium is already being discussed as the Test match before the Test series. South Africa A have peppered their team with members of the World Cup-winning side in an effort to give them much-needed game time.
The Springboks have played just once since their victory over England in the World Cup final in Yokohama 20 months ago. The 40-9 win over Georgia on July 2 was a decent run-out but the clash with the Lions will give the Boks management a far clearer idea of the squad’s readiness.
The South Africa side that lines up for the first Test on July 24 is unlikely to look hugely different to the ‘A’ team, except for the return of those currently isolating.
Captain Siya Kolisi, stand-off Handre Pollard, wing Makazole Mapimpi, hooker Bongi Mbonambi and prop Frans Malherbe are the missing men but the so-called second string are still able to field a starting XV featuring nine players who played in the World Cup final.
South Africa, quite rightly, are unapologetic about picking such a strong team.
“We just want to make sure that the guys who are playing in that first Test have some game time behind them,” said Stick.