July unrest: How I bore witness to history being written

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Residents of Mobeni and surrounding areas looted the goods strewn across South Coast Road in Durban. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press
Residents of Mobeni and surrounding areas looted the goods strewn across South Coast Road in Durban. Photo: Rosetta Msimango/City Press


Having spent part of my childhood in a household where, on occasion (and for no reason at all), shots would be fired from a 9mm pistol, the scenes of men carelessly flaunting their shotguns during the wave of mass looting and violence that played out across KwaZulu-Natal in July should not have frightened me as much as they did.

I will never forget how my favourite uncle – after downing a few O-be-joyfuls and clearly feeling valiant – would stand at our gate and, without warning, open fire into the sky with his handgun.

I must say, some of those in my life do not understand my attitude to my career – particularly in July, when I was over-the-moon excited at the prospect of covering the never-to-be-forgotten looting and violence that gripped the nation.

READ: South Africa has long been burning; this week we just saw the flames

Understand that it was not because I enjoy seeing bad things happen, but because I enjoy the thrill of being witness to history in the making. As a journalist, I was there to bear witness and cover the unrest. Call it business unusual.

CHARRED REMAINS: One of more than a dozen vehicles on the streets of Phoenix which were torched by the mob. Photo: Rosetta Msimango

Excited as my adrenaline-fuelled body was on July 14, the more than eight-hour drive from Johannesburg to Durban began to take its toll on me, with irritation creeping in due to the various road closures.

READ: Business owners and workers devastated by ongoing looting

As the sun set, we finally arrived in Durban, with the looting still in full swing. That information dispelled any irritation or frustrations, but my colleague and I needed to rest.

“Let’s start early tomorrow morning,” we agreed.

My first sight of guns being flung around willy-nilly was barely a few hours after we had woken up.

Mobeni was our first stop and stands out for me because from a kilometre away, we saw the looting still taking place at about 8am. The sight will remain with me for some time.

As we approached about 10 white men, I thought excitedly:

Here we go!

“We’re journalists covering the looting and visiting a few areas,” said my seemingly calm colleague.

“Sir, may we...?”

“Get the fuck out of here!” we were unexpectedly told.

My colleague responded to the men: “We’re trying to speak to you.”

And I added in a whisper:

They’ve got guns – let’s go!

Suffice to say that we were blocked entry and told furiously where to get off.

READ: Looters in Durban walk 11km as food shortages loom large

This was just one of the few instances where guns were pointed at our faces by people who were not law enforcers, but wanted to make us aware that they were now in charge – and there was nothing we could do about it. With each instance, my anxiety escalated – and my colleague’s anger was fuelled, particularly in the affluent area of The Bluff. “These people are pissing me off!” she said, as I let out a nervous giggle.


The drive around Mobeni led us to South Coast Road, which somehow reminded me of our favourite former finance minister Tito Mboweni. If you were there, sir, all the pilchards you could have wanted for days – nay, years – were just lying there, begging to be cooked by your creative hands. One step in any direction and you would have been lucky (pun intended) not to walk over a can of one of your staple foods.

Beds, fridges, stoves, cupboards and television sets were free for all to grab, as citizens walked around as if it a Black Friday sale, without the nuisance of paying.

This was far more entertaining than having guns in our faces. The intriguing sight of people brazenly picking and choosing what they would be lugging home left me gobsmacked. Residents of neighbouring areas made their way to Mobeni for a loot or two, as they “liberated” goods from shops that had forced them to pay the day before.

READ: Looters in Durban walk 11km as food shortages loom large

Cars filled the streets, some already packed to the brim with stolen goods, while looters also sat on the sides of the street next to their booty waiting for friends or family to pick them up, like revellers after an evening out awaiting an Uber. The constant ringing of alarms provided the background music.

VIEWING THE DAMAGE. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visiting the Bride City Shopping Centre in KwaMashu, Durban, where he conceded that government could have acted quicker. Photo: Rosetta Msimango

Tiger Brands reported losses in excess of R150 million and, judging by what we saw, I can believe it. Beyond the pilchards and furniture that deluged South Coast Road that sunny morning, there were incalculable bags of rice and bulk foodstuffs being dragged home by looters on makeshift trolleys using anything they could find.

While the earlier part of the day had left me in awe, nothing had prepared me for the heartwrenching scenes we witnessed in Shastri Park in Phoenix.

READ: We are not out of the woods yet, say Phoenix residents

While we navigated the area trying to find the location of the “Phoenix massacre” – the spot where 33 blacks had been killed, allegedly at the hands of vigilante groups – we were warned by many on our route "not to go there". But how could we not?

Their warnings proved correct very quickly, as we came across at least three vehicles burnt to ashes during the violent clashes upon our entrance - There were many more along the way. As we attempted to dodge the remnants of other torched cars, whose still smoking tyres gave off the acrid stench of burnt rubber, an eerie atmosphere prevailed. The stares of people around us chilled us to the marrow. I am deeply grateful to those who were willing to tell us what had happened there, because it was tense and frightening.


After driving most of the morning and afternoon, and being barred entry from certain areas – which forced us to find alternative routes – we were desperate for petrol. But where to go?

READ: ‘We just want to bury our child’, says family of 14-year-old shot dead in Vosloorus

Hours went by as we played South Africa’s favourite game of queueing, this time at a petrol station, due to fears of a fuel shortage that had gripped the area. Our impatience and need for more coverage saw us hop from one petrol station to another, with each queue seeming to be longer than the one before. My colleague and I desperately reassured each other that we would eventually “find a petrol station with no cars”.

We eventually realised that we were delusional and settled for one in Umhlanga, where we simply had to wait. Four vital hours were spent in that queue.

We were still at the back of the line of waiting vehicles when we were informed that we could only get R300’s worth of fuel. Go figure.

Business unusual is what we endured this year and the riots were just another puzzle in that picture.

For a journalist, though, they were an unforgettable experience.


Palesa Dlamini 


+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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