Have the pro-Zuma instigators of the looting and rioting that racked KwaZulu and pockets of Gauteng in the last 11 days scored a spectacular own goal? Instead of sowing divisions, they seem to have united the country against them and as Mushtak Parker reports, inspired acts of heroism and selflessness.
As the unrest in South Africa recedes and a sense of normality returns, stories of the heroic efforts of ordinary South Africans of all colours and creeds in defending their hard-won democracy and Constitution are rightly grabbing the headlines.
The unrest in fact has unleashed the true spirit of Ubuntu as South Africans of every colour rallied to clean up streets, protect their neighbourhoods, comfort their communities, distribute food and water.
They are trying to build back their lives and reinforce that sense of a shared nationhood which would have made the founding fathers of democratic South Africa proud.
That the looters targeted supermarkets, shopping malls, petrol stations, warehouses and even pharmacies and clinics – mostly Indian and White owned, suggests they were bent on fomenting racial discord to exploit historical tensions between KwaZulu’s Black and Indian populations, as well as discontent by depriving people of daily necessities including baby formula milk and nappies.
The unrest caused major disruptions in food and medicine supply chains smack in the middle of a third wave of Covid-19 infections, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning Pretoria to “brace for a surge in infections as a direct result of the unrest.”
Stakeholders from all sectors are buying into the take-back. “The journalists on the ground were brilliant and fearless. They managed to retain their composure under the most difficult conditions when their safety was at serious risk,” stresses freelancer Mo Allie.
“Most of the time journalists were first on volatile scenes, reporting about the looting before a police official could set foot there,” tweeted Nakareng Matshe of The Sowetan – something President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged in his address to the nation on 16 July. Ramaphosa confirmed at least 212 people died and the police are investigating 131 cases of murder.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who have lost their lives to this senseless violence. This is a pain that no family and no community should have to endure,” he lamented.
In Thembisa, Gauteng, community leader Richard Seletisha led a group of protestors, whose placards were to the point: “Hands off. No looting in our mall.”
“This mall,” explained Seletisha in a BBC interview, “is the heartbeat of this area. You destroy this mall, you destroy us. We fought so hard so that we can have a mall. So that our lives can be much easier. So that our kids can be employed.”
Community leaders elsewhere in Gauteng are equally adamant: “We are not threatened. We are ready for them [the looters]. We are stronger than them. We have the whole community behind us.” Many have even set up checkpoints across the city to ensure that it is only residents that enter their neighbourhoods.
South African Indians – both Hindus and Muslims – are particularly concerned that they and their businesses have been targeted. The ransacking of supermarkets, pharmacies, clinics and surgeries, the looting and arson attack on Mayville Mosque in Durban and the drive-by murder of an imam have forced many to take up arms to defend their properties.
“They have come to loot our properties and burn down our businesses,” lamented a nervous businessman in a video post on the muslim.daily Instagram account.
This climate of fear has spread to other non-affected parts of the country. In Cape Town the owners of the main Cavendish Mall in the affluent suburb of Claremont have temporarily closed for business and several Indian-owned businesses are reporting extra security measures purely as a precaution.
But again in the spirit of Ubuntu, a group of Indian Muslims, supported by local businesses and NGOs, drove 650km all the way from Azaadville in Johannesburg with their own trucks and security, armed with 32,000 loaves of bread and cartons of milk for distribution to affected communities in Durban irrespective of their ethnicity and backgrounds.
Similarly, in KwaZulu, businesses and NGOs – including Muslims for Humanity and the Natal Memon Jamaat Foundation (NMJ) joined hands to distribute 40,000 loaves of bread and 40,000 litres of milk to communities impacted by violence and looting in the greater Durban area.
A post from Janice Benecke on Facebook says it all: “Can’t believe how the Muslim community are handing out bread and milk for free in Musgrave – I now have a loaf of bread – could just burst into tears right now – THANK YOU.”
‘We’re not going to accept this’
The impact of the unrest on the lives of ordinary people is best illustrated by Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, founder of the widely-respected poverty alleviation and medical charity, Gift of the Givers Foundation.
In an interview with BizNews Radio, he speaks passionately about the desperate calls he received from hospitals that had run out of food and medicines including oxygen, and from mothers on social media begging for formula milk and food for their babies.
Above all, he paid tribute to the community leaders from all racial groups who stood up and said, “We’re not going to accept this. We’ve got to defend this.” The turning point came when the powerful Taxi Association warned: “We will not allow this to happen, no more malls are going to be attacked.”
A reality check about the real economy impact of the unrest came over the weekend when Toyota’s Africa COO, Toshimitsu Imai, in a letter to the Mayor of eThekwini Municipality, which includes the port city of Durban, warned “we are uncertain as to when it will be safe enough to resume operations” at its plant, which closed at the onset of the riots.
“The local City management team have been unable to provide us with plans on how it intends bringing stability and order back to the City. This is a key decision element for us when deciding on new investments,” he stressed.
The cost of the rioting to South Africa in terms of economic losses as well as social fracturing and a shattered international image will be immense. But it has also brought out the best among the best in the country and on this South Africa can surely build a stronger foundation.