South Africa

Cape Town looting: small stall-holders, foreigners bear the brunt of local politics

By Rebecca Davis 31 October 2013

In Cape Town, marches to Parliament or the provincial legislature are so common that sometimes they barely make the news. A seemingly ordinary Cape Town afternoon tipped over into something quite different on Wednesday, however, when a protest march in the CBD suddenly broke into looting and rioting. The DA says it’s all part of the ANC’s campaign to make the province ungovernable, but the ANC distanced itself from the march. Politicking aside, the people worst affected by Wednesday’s events were, yet again, small stall-holders. REBECCA DAVIS tries to figure out what happened.

The biggest thing supposed to be happening in Cape Town on Wednesday afternoon was a debate on ethical leadership attended by, among others, former UN head Kofi Annan, former Irish President Mary Robinson, former US president Jimmy Carter, Richard Branson, and, er, former Genesis lead singer Peter Gabriel. While this benign Illuminati swapped zen koans, however, something akin to chaos was going down in the CBD, with reports of car windows being smashed, shop windows damaged, rubbish burnt on the street, and small stalls looted. It’s unclear whether Carter et al got an eyeful on the way to their venue, but if they had, it might have given them rich conversational fodder.

A flyer clutched by some protesters, seen by the Daily Maverick, bore no political branding. It simply read: “March to Premier Helen Zille. Date: 30 October 2013 (Wed). Time: 12:00. Transport: Free buses & taxis at different pick up points at 09:00.” Then a short list of demands: land for housing development; decent sanitation; and a negotiation with taxi owners over the proposed rapid bus transit system.

Everything started off perfectly peacefully, though the size of the crowd was larger than expected, and apparently larger than police had bargained for: by some estimates up to 3,500. While the vast majority of the protestors gathered outside provincial legislature singing calmly, a rogue faction suddenly broke away and ran down St George’s Mall, a pedestrian walkway where traders have small stalls, selling largely to tourists.

“The people were just coming and they took my stuff,” a visibly upset Omary Asumini told the Daily Maverick some time afterwards. “They took all the African clothes I am selling and a Springbok skin. They came twice.” Asumini said they took apart the iron scaffolding of the stalls and helped themselves to bits of iron. “They just said they are gonna kill me.”

Melody Msonde, who runs a nearby stall, took up the story. “They were saying, ‘You are a foreigner, we’re going to steal from you’.” All the female traders we spoke to were from the DRC. “They were saying, Makwerekere, hambani khaya [foreigners, go back home].” The police, they claim, ran away.

“Being a foreigner is not like being a slave,” said Ntumba Doudou. “But they have taken everything from us.” The women estimated that the loss in earnings for each stall ran to well over R3,000.

Photo: Small stall-holders Melody Msonde & Omary Adumin were visibly upset after looting

Omary Adumin has been in South Africa for 14 years. Through the meagre earnings she makes through her St George’s Mall clothes stall, she was able to save up enough to send her son Bruno to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT).

“To get a job here is very difficult,” Bruno Adumin told the Daily Maverick. “My mother did her best to send me to university. This is not the first time this happened to us. The thing is, you can go and lay charges. There is a camera.” He gestured to a wall-mounted CCTV camera, only a matter of metres from his mother’s destroyed stall. “You can go open a case. But when you go to the police, they won’t do nothing.” His mother opened a police case after a similar incident in 2004. She hasn’t heard anything since.

Photo:  A wall-mounted CCTV camera was only a matter of metres away from the looters.

Standing nearby, clothes-seller Ernest Abanobi, from Lagos, said he didn’t blame the looters. “It’s government that’s supposed to help them. Nigeria will do more than this for them,” he said. “They just want to take something to sell.” He admitted he hadn’t had anything stolen himself. If he had? “Yes, I would be angry,” he said.

Jolie Kunandi, who has lived in South Africa for eight years, was lamenting her losses to anyone who would listen. “I have seven children,” she said. “Every morning I wake up at 4am to steal the train [board it without detection] because the Metro cops won’t catch me then. Sometimes I have enough money to take the train back [to Brooklyn] at night. Sometimes I walk.”

The looters went on to tackle tourist fleamarket Greenmarket Square, where a group of foreign stallholders reportedly armed themselves with the iron struts of their stalls and were on the verge of seriously assaulting a would-be looter before a policeman intervened. Foreigners were not their only target: there were reports of the local flower-sellers outside Cape Town station having their aprons torn off them. Boxes of crisps and fizzy drinks were prime targets, with some protesters allegedly looting them only to attempt almost immediately to sell them. The streets of the CBD were littered with the detritus of these spoils.

But some legitimate protesters, who appeared to be in the vast majority, expressed horror at the actions of the looters. “They are rude,” said Grace Boltney, 59, who was wearing an ANC T-shirt. “We didn’t come to take the people’s things. I was also running [to get away from the looters] and it was chaos. It’s not all right.” She explained that they had come to protest against the way in which they were forced to live.

Photo: Grace Boltney (59)

“We live in very, very hard conditions,” Boltney said. “We don’t have toilets. Our shacks burn down. We live with rats and they bite the babies. In winter I was living in water: anyone can get cross! We are not animals. Being South African, why doesn’t Zille do something for us?”

Boltney said that the leaders of the march had not given any incitement to loot, did not know it was happening, and were “cross” about it.

The DA claimed that one of the march leaders was ANC councillor Loyiso Nkohla, of Ward 98 in Khayelitsha. The Daily Sun reported that last weekend, Nkohla told gatherings in Nyanga, Philippi, Khayelitsha and Samora Machel: “You will not have to go hungry because there are so many places that you can loot in the CBD. The police can’t arrest us all because there will be too many of us.”

We weren’t able to verify Nkohla’s presence at the march, but the man who seemed to have the ear of the crowd was suspended ANC ‘poo protest’ leader Andile Lili. If Lili was indeed cross about the looting, he hid it well. “Whatever looting that has taken place here today, Helen Zille must be responsible,” he told journalists outside the provincial legislature. He said that the people looted because they were poor and did not have enough to eat. “We arrived here at 9am. Some are saying they are hungry. Who is the cause of that? Zille.”

Lili said that a major demand was that they should be given housing closer to the centre of Cape Town, to cut down on daily travel. “We are no longer voting fodder,” he said. “We are human beings.”

Despite Nkohla and Lili’s ANC ties, the ANC distanced itself from day’s events. The ANC Youth League in the Western Cape put out a statement condemning “rogue elements who opportunistically use public platforms for ventilating genuine community concerns for their selfish interests by taking advantage of the plight of the most vulnerable in our society”.

ANC Western Cape leader Marius Fransman, meanwhile, said that the protest was participated in by “mostly Economic Freedom Fighter (EFF) supporters”.

There were, indeed, a few red berets visible in the crowd, but no more than a handful. When the Daily Maverick told Lili that Fransman had suggested the crowd was mainly made up of EFF supporters, Lili grew incensed. “Who the hell does [Fransman] think he is?” he yelled. “Where is EFF? Go to hell Fransman! They are useless leaders. They must go to hell!”

Lili may have been venting his personal frustrations at his suspension by the ANC Western Cape leadership, but there are those who say that there is a schism gaining traction within the ANC in the province. It is said that the more radical leadership of the likes of Lili and Nkohla may be receiving growing support. As such, it might be accurate to say that Fransman and his cohorts had little or nothing to do with Wednesday’s march – although much of the rhetoric was indistinguishable from that heard at recent marches led by Fransman or provincial Cosatu head Tony Ehrenreich.

Clouds gathered as the afternoon dragged on outside the provincial legislature. Lili was adamant that the crowd would not budge until Zille herself showed her face. He said they would stay, if necessary, overnight. Smoke rose up from piles of rubbish set alight on the road, and a succulent plant of some kind burned steadily. The beginning of heavy rainfall did nothing to dampen the vigour of the crowd. But at around 17h15, apparently upon some received order, riot police armed themselves. Lili seemed to be told to tell the crowd to go home, and he did so. They obeyed.

They had little choice: a line of grim-faced riot police herded them towards the station. At times, everyone was running. Individuals who strayed from the riot police’s perimeter were thwacked back in line. Some of them had not been involved in the protest, and were apparently merely making their way to the station after a day’s work. Riot police used their shields to hustle them forwards. One old woman, certainly not a protester, anxiously begged a second to take off her shoes so she could be herded forward at the approved pace. The scene of a row of riot police literally driving lines of black and coloured people out of the centre of town had disturbing echoes.

The riot police didn’t relax their guard when the crowd reached the station. They hustled them forward, through the station, on to the actual train. No tickets were taken. Two riot policemen spoke sternly to the driver. As the train prepared for departure, journalists trickled away.

Back outside the provincial legislature, a team was already busily cleaning up the protest’s waste. An hour later, with the rain still gently falling, it was as if everything had been a bad dream. Except, of course, for the stall-holders, who will wake up to find their vital stock still gone. DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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