The death toll from five days of violence in South Africa has risen to 72, police have said, despite President Cyril Ramaphosa's deployment of troops to quell the unrest.

"The total number of people who have lost their lives since the beginning of these protests ...has risen to 72," police said in a statement.

Police said most of the deaths "relate to stampedes that occurred during incidents of looting of shops" with others resulting from shootings and explosions at bank automatic cash machines.

The raging unrest first erupted last Friday after former president Jacob Zuma started serving a 15-month term for contempt after snubbing a probe into the corruption that stained his nine years in power.

By the weekend it started spreading to Gauteng province, and today police said there had been a few incidents in the eastern province of Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape.

Yesterday Mr Ramaphosa deployed troops to help overwhelmed police as the looting and burning of buildings spread across parts of two of the most populous provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg.

The number of arrests have risen significantly to 1,234, although thousands upon thousands have been involved in ransacking businesses, factories and retail centres.

Protests that followed Zuma's arrest last week have widened into looting and an outpouring of generalised anger over inequality that persists 27 years after the fall of apartheid.

Poverty has been exacerbated by severe social and economic restrictions aimed at blocking the spread of Covid-19.

"No amount of unhappiness or personal circumstances from our people gives the right to anyone to loot, vandalise and do as they please and break the law," Police Minister Bheki Cele told a news conference, echoing sentiments expressed by President Cyril Ramaphosa overnight.

The bodies of 10 people were found yesterday evening after a stampede at a Soweto shopping centre, premier David Makhura said.

Hundreds of looters raided warehouses and supermarkets in Durban, one of the busiest shipping terminals on the African continent and a major import-export hub.

Outside a Durban warehouse of retailer Game, Reuters filmed looters stuffing cars with electronic goods and clothes.

Inside, the floor was a wreckage of discarded packaging as the crowd systematically emptied the shelves.

Aerial footage from local channel eNCA showed black smoke rising from several warehouses, while debris lay strewn.

Troops were moving into flash points as outnumbered police seemed helpless to stop the unrest. Columns of armoured personnel carriers rolled down highways.

The rand, which had been one of the best performing emerging market currencies during the pandemic, dropped to a three-month low, and local and hard currency bonds suffered.

On the streets, protesters hurled stones and police who responded with rubber bullets, Reuters journalists said.

In Soweto, police and military were patrolling as shop owners assessed the damage.

Mr Cele said the government would act to prevent it from spreading further and warned that people would not be allowed "to make a mockery of our democratic state".

Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, speaking at the same news conference, said she did not think a state of emergency should be imposed yet.

Zuma, 79, was sentenced last month for defying a constitutional court order to give evidence at an inquiry investigating high-level corruption during his nine years in office until 2018.

The legal proceedings have been seen as a test of post-apartheid South Africa's ability to enforce the rule of law.

Any confrontation with soldiers risks fuelling charges by Zuma and his supporters that they are victims of apolitically motivated crackdown by his successor, Mr Ramaphosa.

The violence worsened as Zuma challenged his 15-month jail term in South Africa's top court yesterday. Judgement was reserved until an unspecified date.