'We lost everything': Despair grows in South Africa after unrest

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Mannequin leg in the parking lot of Diepkloof Square after looting.
Mannequin leg in the parking lot of Diepkloof Square after looting.
Photo by Gallo Images/Alet Pretorius

Shelves broken, decorations ripped off the walls and empty boxes that used to carry colourful party supplies litter Thandi Johnson's store. The devastated shop owner looks through the debris of her popular party-rental shop in Diepkloof, Soweto, for anything she might be able to salvage.

There is nothing.

The interior of TWJ Events after the unrest

"On Monday, I had the day off so my husband and I took our routine morning walk," Johnson, 41, recalled.

"One of my staff members called about the growing unrest in the Diepkloof area, so I advised them to close shop and go home for safety reasons."

Shortly afterwards, Johnson received another phone call, one she had dreaded: TWJ Events – named after herself, her husband Wayne and son Johnson – had been looted and destroyed amid the deadly unrest that engulfed parts of South Africa over the past week.

Johnson said:

I am heartbroken. The Diepkloof community has hurt me deeply. We spent 12 years building this business.

'I have no words'

Gunshots and petrol bombs reverberated across Kwa-Zulu Natal province following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma in the early hours of 8 July.

In the days after that, sporadic protests turned into rampant looting, growing more violent and destructive in two of Southern Africa's biggest economic hubs – Durban and Johannesburg.

Stores were set alight, shops were looted and community members clashed with the police, in what was the worst mass violence in South Africa since the end of white minority rule in 1994.

The unrest led to more than 200 deaths – including children, elderly people and police officers – and a total of more than 2 500 people arrested.

In a statement on Friday night, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that the destruction of property and infrastructure will cost the country billions of rand.

People going to work passing a burned car.

The chaos and the destruction were unrelenting and unselective, from large multinational corporations to struggling small businesses. The stark contrast, however, according to Steve Ledwaba, a businessman in Johannesburg's Alexandra township whose shop was vandalised and looted in the early hours of Friday morning, is that community convenience stores may have a harder time recovering from the carnage.

"I have no words," said the 54-year-old. "I have lost everything. I served this community, I know everyone, I help them every day."

Ledwaba had started selling a range of perishable goods such as bread and milk to the community from the backdoor of his two-room house in 2005, before opening his own shop.

"I wake up at 3am every day to make fresh vetkoeks [fried dough bread] for those that take the train to work at 4am. I didn't mind if someone who needed bread or pampers or even cold drink was missing R1. Now they’ve destroyed me."

'Planned and coordinated'

The government has deployed the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to the areas most affected by the unrest, while Ramaphosa on Friday suggested the violence was "planned and coordinated" and said the government would not allow "anarchy and mayhem" to take hold in South Africa.

“We will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country," Ramaphosa told reporters during a visit to eThekwini Municipality.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on a visit to the Kwamashu Bridge City on Friday.

While questions linger over the root causes of the violence and riots, some believe they were bound to happen.

"The majority of the people that are looting are poor and unemployed and tired of the inequalities," said Vuyo Zungula, an opposition MP and president of the African Transformation Movement, who described the events as a culmination of South Africa's unaddressed economic disparities and the gross indignity faced by a majority of its historically disadvantaged black population.

Zungula added: 

There is a man that was killed in Tembisa while holding a loaf of bread and milk.

Zungula said he believed that civil unrest of this nature and magnitude will continue over the next few years, unless meaningful economic reforms are introduced to benefit those who have long been marginalised.

In 2017, the Department of Agriculture Rural Development and Land Reform released the Land Audit Report, a 36-page document highlighting the racialised economic disparity and land ownership in South Africa. According to the report, black people, who make up the majority of the population, own only 4 percent of land, and white people, who make up just 12 percent of the population, own 72 percent of land.

In 2019, South Africa was declared the most unequal country in the world by the World Bank. The unemployment rate sits at a staggering high of 32.6 percent

"This is not just hunger; it is years of financial and psychological oppression of the poor. It is the result of suffering and exclusion,” said Mabutho Mthimkhulu, a community activist and preacher at a local Presbyterian chapter in Soweto.

"We need to rebuild the country but things cannot go back to the way they are."

'We were just starting to recover'

The unrest came at a time when many businesses were struggling to get back on their feet after stringent coronavirus lockdowns resulted in the closure of restaurants, construction companies and other industries as the pandemic took a toll on the country’s finances. South Africa’s economy contracted by 7 percent last year, compared with 0.2 percent growth the year before.

Zandi Montumo, 49, had just reopened her salon in Jabulani Mall, Soweto, after closing her doors in December, when her shop was attacked.

"We were just starting to recover, so I am very sad," she said.

"I am actually one of the lucky ones; only the windows were vandalised, and a few appliances taken, but the damage is recoverable."

Montumo, however, said the poor going into establishments and taking what they have been deprived of was somewhat understandable.

"I have been there," she said.

"I know the feeling of having nothing to feed your children. I’m sad for small businesses but the government is to blame for failing our people who live in poverty."

Johnson also chooses to focus on a way forward and rebuild not only her shop, but also her community relations.

"This almost destroyed the care I had for the Diepkloof community but since I have been receiving so much love and support from people all over, that made it easier for me to forgive," she said.

"The widespread support forced me to be human again. Love conquers all. I will forever cherish the support and friendships that came from the crisis."

Johnson added:

I can forgive the looters although I will not forget how I felt.

"Hopefully we all have learned a lesson from this crisis."

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