It will go down in history as one of the darkest periods in South African history and the country will count the cost of the frenzied looting and largescale destruction for years to come.
Yet SA is already rising out of the ashes and people are coming together to sweep away the horror and help rebuild a nation.
And while there have been many heroes emerging in the wake of the unrest, one young woman has quietly been making waves, armed with a cellphone in one hand and a black plastic bag in the other.
Emelda Masango (25), from Crown Mines in Johannesburg, is the driving force behind the Rebuild SA group – an initiative where people give up their time to clean and rebuild shops, malls and streets affected by the looting.
“It’s important to build up the businesses so that people can get employed again,” Emelda says, speaking to YOU on her way to her next clean-up operation at Diepkloof Square.
Life has become hectic for her– what started with one woman volunteering on social media to help has now snowballed into a 70 000-strong network of volunteers across KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
READ MORE | Inside the mind of a looter: experts explain the motives behind the mayhem
Along with co-founders Natalie Church and Mbali Ndhlovu, Emelda and the Rebuild SA team has – with the help of a private company – managed to fly food to KZN, fixed up stores in shopping centres and malls across Gauteng and KZN and arranged counselling sessions for distraught business owners and security personnel.
The government estimates the looting has set back the national economy by R50 billion, with more than 40 000 businesses and buildings looted, burnt or vandalised.
Emelda has heard many heartbreaking stories of people who have lost their livelihoods because of the unrest and looting. “Some business owners are so traumatised they can’t even speak to us,” she says.
“Some are sponsoring us and they try to be strong, but you can see they are breaking.”
She and her team are doing all they can to help. So far they’ve managed to clean, paint and get countless businesses and stores back on their feet.
For Emelda, it’s bittersweet.
“I’m happy we can communicate through this hardship, through this time of tears and heartbreak,” she says. “But I’m sad that we only need each other or come together in moments of sadness.”
Before the looting broke out, Emelda worked in retail as a receptionist.
When the company employing her decided to close its doors to avoid becoming a target, she witnessed the violence and destruction firsthand.
“I was walking down the street while they were looting,” she recalls. “I was angry and sad because it was affecting everyone’s jobs.”
READ MORE | ‘I watched my baby fly from the building’ – traumatised Durban mom relives fire horror
Emelda couldn’t shake the horrific scenes she’d seen. Everywhere she looked she saw trucks torched, buildings stoned and roads barricaded.
“It made me realise there are so many people who are hurting out there, but mostly business owners because they lost a lot through this looting.”
She knew she needed to do something. So she decided to pop a message onto the I Know a Guy Facebook page, which describes itself as “a network of influencers, employers, freelancers and networkers who believe in sharing opportunities and recommending the best guy for the job”. Emelda offered her help in any way needed.
“Anyone who needs help to clean up after the looting in their business, I volunteer,” she wrote on the group.
When she woke up the next morning, she was met with thousands of requests from people who also wanted to help and who’d shared her post on the social media platform.
And so Rebuild SA was born. Emelda, Natalie and Mbali started coordinating volunteers to clean malls and shopping centres.
“At first we were connecting the dots from our pockets. After that we got small donations here and there,” she says.
Now several banks, IT companies, security groups and insurance companies have offered to donate millions towards the initiative.
Every cent counts, she says.
They use the donations to buy cleaning supplies and equipment to clean and paint damaged businesses and arrange counselling – but the biggest need, she adds, is for food.
“People are demanding food from us,” Emelda says.
“We give families 12,5kg maize meal today, by tomorrow it’s finished. And the next day they’re looking for food again.”
Some residents are lucky enough to be able to afford the basics, but food is scarce, and queues at local spaza shops are long.
“They have to take a taxi to town to buy food. It’s R20 for a one-way trip, so it’s R40 per person,” she says. “It’s really hard.”
It’s the heartbreaking stories she hears that motivate Emelda to do more. “I just want to put a smile on their faces and give them hope again,” she says.
Emelda inherited her love for helping people from her grandmother, Esther, who passed away in 2016.
“She tried by all means possible to ensure we had food, but that wasn’t always the case,” she says.
“There was no such thing as breakfast in my life. Sometimes I’d come back from school [and there’d be] no food and then the next morning I’d go back to school hungry.”
Her background drove her to want a better future for herself. Emelda applied herself at school and then found a job.
She started ploughing back into the community long before starting Rebuild SA and hosted chat nights to empower the women in her area.
“I love helping people,” she tells YOU. “We’d do a girls’ night talk and they’d come with snacks they can afford. I used to revamp their CVs for free so they could find jobs more easily.”
Her parents, Johanna Ndala (48) and Sidwell Masango (47), are proud of their daughter’s philanthropic efforts.
“My mom is surprised and happy. My dad is always calling me and checking up on me, asking, ‘Are you okay, what’s going on?’” she says.
Emelda and her team now hope to turn Rebuild SA into a permanent project and want to help people in need all over South Africa.
She and her team plan to keep their jobs until the initiative is up and running and doing well.
“We’re busy drafting our long-term goals. After we help the businesses damaged by the looting we’ll still be rebuilding, because there are so many things that need to be rebuilt in South Africa.”
The young woman hopes her project will encourage citizens across the country to volunteer and do good in their communities.
“I hope love comes out of this,” she says. “I hope it inspires people, especially the youth, because they are the future of tomorrow.”