Report from the looting frontline: I am the closest I have ever been to losing hope

The Queensmead Mall in Umbilo, Durban, was looted and stripped on Monday night. On Tuesday morning, some of the looters had returned. (Photo: Des Erasmus)
By Des Erasmus
13 Jul 2021 52

Nothing is moving now besides the media, the desperate, the criminals, the opportunistic and the civilian patrols and vigilante groups trying to keep them at bay.

Forgive me in advance if what I am writing might reflect that I have lost property, a business or any other asset in the looting and violence that has gripped my home province of KwaZulu-Natal. I had lost none of these things at the time of writing. My health and that of my family are intact. 

I am an everyman in this tragedy, one of millions of citizens trying to make it through the night without being overwhelmed by emotion as an unprecedented number of gunshots puncture the dark, as looters carry their wares past my home, screaming, shouting, laughing, drunk and drinking. 

Looters who, up to the time of publication, had chosen not to toss a match the way of any of the homes in my working to lower middle-class suburb. 

This benevolence, if you will, fills me with a shameful sense of gratitude and the reddest of rage. I have zero desire to analyse it. 

Within a 10km radius of my home, malls, shops and businesses are alight and looted. Factories and warehouses have been stripped and are ablaze. Highways and arterial roads are blocked. 

Kay-Kay, Sthe, Brian and Braiden manning one of the roadblocks in Umbilo on Tuesday night. (Photo: Des Erasmus)
Umbilo community patrollers apprehend alleged looters on Tuesday night. (Photo: Des Erasmus)

KwaZulu-Natal’s manufacturing sector has been obliterated. Its retail sector is dead. Hospitals are under protection, medicine cannot be sourced, pharmacies have had their shelves stripped, mothers are searching for formula via WhatsApp groups. 

Thousands of jobs have been lost. Scores of companies and businesses will not reopen.

It would take the most blindly optimistic investor to return to a province such as KwaZulu-Natal. Even before this insurrection, mismanagement and plundering by officials and politicians could not be contained. 

Nothing is moving now besides the media, the desperate, the criminals, the opportunistic and the civilian patrols and vigilante groups trying to keep them at bay. 

Police are exhausted. The defence force is stalling. National authorities are flaccid. Politicians are condemning things that they are too shit-scared to walk through without state-sponsored security. 

My neighbours from African countries have not left their properties. They know that in KZN it takes little more than an accusation to focus violent attention on them.

The Queensmead Mall in Umbilo, Durban, was looted and stripped on Monday night. (Photo: Des Erasmus)
The Queensmead Mall in Umbilo, Durban. (Photo: Des Erasmus)

A ragtag group armed with pangas, sjamboks, cricket bats, gas guns and pool cues (you read that correctly) locked my neighbourhood down at 6pm on Tuesday. No way in, no way out. They have been stopping every single car wanting to enter. Many have been found crammed with looted goods. The items are being confiscated. 

I experienced the same on the Bluff earlier in the day, men manning the entrance to the town, many armed. Getting in is difficult. You have to have a damned good reason to be there. 

Same thing in Musgrave, except here there was hyper organisation – expensive weapons and expensive cars doing the blockading. One man was carrying what looked like a newly polished and sharpened machete. It glistened. “We’d prefer if you don’t take photos. Some people are calling us vigilantes now,” he shrugged. 

What would have appalled me a week ago, on Tuesday comforted me.

My immediate priorities today, now, are the same as those in scores of areas across the province, but under different circumstances: The safety and health of my family, the safety of my friends and colleagues, and the sanctity of my neighbourhood. 

The aftermath of the looting of the Queensmead Mall in Umbilo, Durban. (Photo: Des Erasmus)

Do not presume to understand the devastation and anxiety in these suburbs, in these townships, until you have stepped into them. Do not assume you have a sense of what is going on from video clips or media footage. You do not. 

I am the closest I have ever been to losing hope. I feel no shame in admitting it. My fear is also waning, a dangerous thing, I have learned from past experience. 

My hope ebbed to the lowest levels yet early on Tuesday morning, but only after exhausted reflection. 

It was a beautiful morning, a Durban morning, the skyline a mesmerising blue – no gunshots for at least five hours. Birds were again in my garden. 

I drove to my local shopping centre, my bread-and-milk place, to take in the scene. There I saw people scratching around in bushes, extracting small goods looted the previous night. They casually loaded the items into vehicles, some ambled across the road to their homes. It numbed me.

I should have been comforted, though. One man, in tatty but clean clothing, was chastising the thieves. “And tomorrow you come and cry because there’s no bread here, nothing to eat.” I saw him later intently sweeping the pavement with a dry palm leaf. 

Frazzled police were stopping anyone who wasn’t a business owner from getting into the gutted centre. “What the fuck do you want here? You going where? Where? Which store? To pick up what? There is nothing in any of the stores. Call your boss, get him on the phone so I can speak to him,” began one exchange. 

On Monday, I watched as criminals in Mercedes-Benzes and shiny double-cab bakkies filled their vehicles with loot at the small Woolworths a few kilometres away.

There is nothing startling in what I am writing. Such scenes are playing out in the corners of many suburbs and townships in eThekwini. 

It is 9pm on Tuesday now. The weather has turned. It is teeth-chattering cold, a rarity for Durban. Multiple gunshots have again just ripped through the night and somewhere in the distance explosions reverberate. DM 


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All Comments 52

  • How to comment? It is such a sad story of self-destruction. For a country that needs jobs, stability, a way forward that is not filled with corruption and plundering of the state, this is a very serious body blow.

    • Yes indeed Des Erasmus. Bravo. But chilling that your opening words could have come straight out of Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road.

  • What a terrible tragedy. Watching the scenes on TV where the looting just went on and on and on and nary a policeman in sight. When the President said the army will be deployed my thoughts were one of relief but then I remembered the army has been hollowed out by corruption, a mere shadow of its former self.

  • An excellent view that evoked great emotion but we need action from our so called leaders. Any civilized state would have declared a state of emergency – usually accompanied by a total curfew with anyone seen looting to be shot with live ammunition. We need to protect our lovely country from this mayhem.

    • Bruce, I feel the sameway as you, they say it is becuase of hunger, I say its becuase of greet and what the anc stood for during the apartheid years distraction.

    • Looters should always be shot it is the only way to bring it to a halt.

      The security services, politicians and police have been overwhelmed by this violence. They all seem to have been preoccupied with corruption and petty politics instead of protecting the nation. What a joke the ANC is.

  • Take care Des, it appears to be out of the hands of the politicians, so much vested interest at stake for those in power and now out of their hands. We only have hope. Thank you

  • I’m “safe” in JHB…I’m incredibly shocked & saddened by the anarchic situation playing out in KZN & here. Your article articulates plainly the impotence we feel,being let down by our government. However it is hopeful that some communities are taking control. High praise goes to journalists in the front line.

  • Zero leadership in a country populated by a medieval population who all enjoy first world rights ……it just cannot work.

  • If there is a small comfort, or a glimmer of hope to emerge from this utter shameful carnage is the recent statement from the NPA who stated that bail will be opposed for all looters.
    The age of non-accountability introduced by Zuma, Schaik and their sort might finally be ending.
    The arrest and conviction for treason of all the instigators is imperitive !

  • This is the true cost of the ANC’s mis-governance of South Africa. Corrupt and incompetent politicians, a corrupt and incompetent justice system, a corrupt and incompetent police force and law-abiding citizens left to fend for themselves! This is anarchy and the so-called guardians are too busy joining in to help.

  • Yes … we the law abiding citizens of this country must now unite and defend what has not yet been destroyed. If threatened we must all take to our streets in large numbers and protect homes and businesses from thugs opportunists and others incited by political motives.

  • Thank you Des for your chilling description of what’s going on. It is so sad and scary. I hope for a miracle, but I don’t even know what to pray for.

  • You are in my thoughts.
    For now we are spared having to confront this loss of mind and failure by the state. But Cape Town cbd was unusually quite the last days with a sense of despair blowing and settling over us too.
    SA seems to have a gut retching ability to willfully throw itself into the abyss – shredding any sane person’s senses.
    And then rising Phoenix like out of the ashes, dead bodies and destruction.

    It regains just enough sanity after yet another blow-out to allow us to sigh relief –
    but never resolving the underlying systemic fault lines, of a one-party state with no ability, legitimacy or even interest in doing so.

    So, with nothing else, we always have to hope that somehow this time, surely, we will find a new trajectory that can counter our nihilism and unleash our immense potential.

  • It is understandable to be overwhelmed inside the storm.

    Some comfort : for every one looter in KZN or Gauteng there are tens of thousand of non-looters in KZN, Gauteng and the rest of SA.

    I do not wish for the harm many now suffer, but it is time once and for all that our government cleans house. Sort out the third force of prisoner zuma within and outside government. If prisoner zuma wants to spill beans, then so be it. Our population needs to understand everything is NOT free, there are rules, there are consequences.

  • No words can make this better. I think in any other country in the world this would have been stopped before it reached these levels. And the best we can hope for is that those few persons that have been arrested face the full might of the law but I suspect that the consequences for these criminals will be negligible. So sad for this country.

  • Unfortunately, there is only one way to stop the looting.
    These criminals must be shot with live ammunition.
    Once a few fall the rest will run away.
    Each and every shopping centre should have been guarded with armed personnel with instructions to shoot to kill.
    It might sound ruthless to some of you, but no other country in the world will accept it like our government does.
    Next step is to totally disarm law abiding citizens so that we are sitting ducks for the next round of looting, which will happen. Mark my words.
    The criminal syndicates behind this have seen that our Police is too “papbroek” to shoot to kill.

  • Stay strong Des your articles are always well written and you are a credit to your profession
    Difficult to see the future here positively, who is going to restock shops, who will rebuild factories and distribution centres that have burnt down.
    Natal is going to suffer, and this plays into the hands of those who will say , we told you
    Stuff them, if there is evidence of 3rd force activists and stokers of the flames, arrest them and send them to Estcourt.

  • My sympathies Mr. Erasmus. A couple of days ago there were some very sanctimonious comments about the treatment looters received in Eswatini. I wonder how the people who made those comments are feeling now.

  • “The Age of Anarchy” so true. And so many thanks to all the brave journalists and ordinary homeowners who have banded together to protect others and their property. If indeed the police have identified a dozen instigators, what are they waiting for to apprehend them and charge them? The most upsetting thing about the article , is that shiny Mercedes Benz vehicles were being used to transport the loot- that really opens up a line of thought!

  • May you your family and colleagues be safe, there seems no end to this unfolding nightmare. An emotive read but we need the truth.

  • When one talks of leadership or lack thereof one can only praise Alan Winde of Western Province and JP Smith of Cape Town for keeping our Province and our City safe

  • Thank you for this reflection. This is bad, but again, worse is to come for the poorest and most marginalised as they struggle to find food, medical care and basic services.

  • The destruction and looting are CRIMINAL – not hungry or poor – CRIMINAL. Ockert Fourie, I agree with you – The only way this sort of thing will be stopped effectively is when curfews are declared in affected areas and when looters are shot on sight with live ammunition. The immense harm this is doing to the economy in KZN and elsewhere is devastating.

  • The irony of the sign in the stripped SuperSpar: “Grab a treat!” Probably not quite what the proprietors had in mind.

  • What an extraordinary piece of writing. Personal and political. It articulates what we feel but cannot express. Thank you for allowing your skill and heart to open our hearts.

  • Mr Ramaphosa- For many years now, ordinary citizens have enjoyed less and less protection against criminal elements from SAPS. We paid our protection money (taxes), and got little in return. In fact, we had to pay money again (if we could) for other security measures, and then ‘cooldrink’ money more and more frequently, and in bigger amounts.
    Now this lack of protection has seriously bitten government in the bum, and nothing will ever be the same again. (Of course, our suffering has also been increased.) I hope that you will not waste a good crisis. Do I need to spell it out more clearly? Clean out SAPS, pronto!

  • I can only repeat what I heard an analyst say on Cape Talk yesterday .


    Lets bring help !

  • What is becoming clear is that this chaotic looting spree is actually a well-planned campaign at destabilising a region, and the country. Looters are looting, but controlling the process from the shadows is a group of people we are familiar with. I’ll bet my bottom dollar some of them, perhaps even several of them, are in Cyril’s cabinet. Its a well-planned well-executed endgame scenario playing itself out, and if we don’t protect our country, it may very well be the end of it, as we’ve known it. I also am at my lowest ebb ever. If only the ANC has done what it promised to do. Instead, they thieved and stole and looted what they could, and in the process created this monster.

  • Des, thank you for this beautifully written article. You expressed my feelings perfectly and brought me to tears. Like you, I feel spent.

  • Take note and prepare Western Cape. React immediately and no kid gloves – warn potential looters that they risk their lives as they will be met with force.

  • I think it was Trotsky who introduced the philosophy of regeneration. He believed that true revolution involved total destruction of the present so that the future can be built on a new foundation!
    The violence in RSA is directed at a similar goal viz. to show us that we will not survive without the influence of a small elite. They have obviously forgotten the principle of Apartheid!
    The process of regeneration that will follow the chaos needs to address the following goals:
    1. It must be aimed to benefit all of the country, black and white, rich and poor, the haves and the “wants”, the followers and the leaders.
    2. The sole objective must be to build for South Africa.
    3. Regeneration must be colourblind – everything must be done only on merit; and
    4. Legislation which tries to separate us as a people needs to be repealed and replaced with legislation which induces us to act as responsible, innovative and proud members of One society

  • The street looters are small fry. The big ones are still sitting in high office and the parliament. CR now is the time to start clearing out the debris from the top, then the streets.