First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
As the horror of violent protests ripped through Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal this week, ordinary people started doing extraordinary things.
Taxi drivers, teachers, small business owners, artists and medics spoke with one voice: Not on our watch.
As horror scenes of unprecedented violence, wanton destruction and heartbreaking looting filled screens around the world and started to subside, ordinary South Africans were getting into ambulances to help the injured, picking up brooms to clean and parking taxis in front of malls to stop looters.
Maponya Mall in Soweto is the only mall in the area that is still standing following systemic attacks on many others – thanks to the leadership of Soweto resident and leader of the Soweto Parliament, Nhlanhla Lux.
Lux has been a key figure in guarding the Maponya Mall against looters.
“It was my devotion to Soweto,” Lux said when asked what made him step up to the challenge. “I have been a community activist since my school days,” he said.
He was speaking from his car, parked at the main gate in front of the mall.
Since 14 July there have been more than a dozen SA Police Service members, army personnel and a hovering army helicopter around the area but it took a while for order to be restored.
“Last night was the only night when we didn’t have to shoot because we were not shot at,” Lux said of what he and his group of community members had to do to keep the rioting crowds out. “One night we engaged in an hour-long shoot-out with the armed looters,” Lux said.
The father of three said the group organised to protect Soweto, of their own volition, after noticing how vulnerable businesses were.
“We have established structures in every community and by extension a sense of trust,” Lux said on how he managed to mobilise so many people so quickly.
He said he worked with community members and did not get involved in politics.
“We will remain here until we are satisfied that things are back to normal because we know the criminals are still here in Soweto,” Lux said.
He has received several death threats, but is standing firm. “We will not be intimidated by thugs, and really don’t care about the size of their guns.”
On the other side of Johannesburg, medic Salmon Mkhwenazi laughs when he hears that people are a little in love with Mfezi – the armoured ambulance that’s called out to the worst disaster scenes imaginable.
It was Mkhwenazi who was behind the wheel of Mfezi when it got pulled into action in Gauteng. He’s the station manager at the Imbalehle Emergency Medical Services base in Orange Farm but is licensed to drive the beast.
“Mfezi is slow and heavy and you know it will take time, but you also know you can bulldoze your way through,” says Mkhwenazi. The priority, as always, is to get paramedics to a patient safely and to get everyone out again in one piece.
“When we arrive at a scene people say ‘wow’ because Mfezi goes anywhere. It also means help has arrived,” he says of the customised military vehicle. Inside it has fold-up stretchers, jump bags and space for four paramedics and two people in the cabin.
Being behind the wheel in Mfezi means facing danger and violence, but Mkhwenazi says it’s what he signed up for.
“You sit high up in Mfezi and we have police escorts. You can’t choose which days you want to come to work – whether it’s Covid or riots. I’m just happy when we can help and when we make people smile.”
Meanwhile, the drivers of the medical oxygen trucks from Afrox continued with their work under police escort to make sure that their precious cargo is delivered to the hospitals that need it most.
Their jobs, dangerous at the best of times, became infinitely more difficult this week as civil unrest ripped through Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal.
“The recent spate of riots and civil unrest has hampered some of the company’s operations but the supply of medical oxygen to hospitals and clinics remains a priority,” Afrox spokesperson Nolundi Rawana said. “Afrox is currently engaged in emergency planning to ensure deliveries can be safely undertaken and to find alternate routes to customers and hospitals as part of a flexible response to spontaneous civil unrest breaking out. Some medical oxygen deliveries have been affected in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal but contingency measures are in place and the SAPS has been engaged to assist with escorting medical oxygen delivery trucks.”
On 15 July, police officers braved the highly unstable situation in Phoenix, Durban, to give lifts to seven moms and their newborns who were desperate to go home from the hospital. The KwaZulu-Natal MEC for Health Nomagugu Simelane said there were attempts to attack the hospital in the past few days.
In Durban, communities in the Inanda and Berea area started cleaning up their neighbourhoods on 15 July.
Berea resident Tinus van Staden (36) said he hopes more people will join them in cleaning up. He says the idea of a clean-up operation came after the community got tired of seeing the area filled with rubble. People were no longer able to drive on the roads, and mostly “wanted life to go back to normal because our lives are on hold”, Van Staden said.
He explained that the idea of a clean-up campaign started on social media platforms, moving to WhatsApp as the community started planning. Before this they had already cleaned up around other shops in the area such as the Food Lover’s Market and McDonald’s.
By 11 am on 15 July more than 30 people were busy cleaning the streets.
Van Staden said he hoped they can get permission to clean inside the shops and the malls but until then they will clean the surrounding areas.
Andre van der Merwe, Makro’s risk mananager in Springfield, said they were pleased that residents of the area had started cleaning up the road outside the store. He said they planned to clean up the store on Friday or Saturday.
When KwaZulu-Natal got hit by food shortages, volunteers made rotis for patients at the RK Khan Hospital and a Johannesburg man who has not been identified drove down to Durban with 32,000 loaves of bread for hungry communities.
In Alexandra in Gauteng, a group called 30 Strong Voices of Alex risked their own safety to spread messages of calm and help the police find the looters.
The group started during the Level 5 lockdown last year when they worked with the police and the army in enforcing lockdown regulations.
When the township’s Pan Africa Mall was hit by the looters, the group was concerned and went to mobilise key people in the community such as ward councillors to help speak to the people to stop looting.
While the looting was under way, the group members identified spots where looters had hidden stolen items. Some of the people involved in the looting were apprehended and handed over to the police, who took them to the cells.
After the looters trashed several shops, 30 Strong Voices of Alex joined law enforcement and went door-to-door, holding the looters to account. They retrieved items such as furniture, groceries and building materials, which were taken to the police station.
Group chair Adolf Marema said: “What we did in the past few days by going door-to-door retrieving the looted items and getting people arrested for things they did was to send a strong message to suspects that crime doesn’t pay. Our main mandate is to protect and save our beautiful Alexandra township from being destroyed by a few greedy individuals,” he said.
Also in Alexandra, Linda Twala said his heart sank when he saw people destroying a township that is already poor with a high unemployment rate. Twala said that as the looters wrecked shops he was busy identifying the most vulnerable people in the township – those in dire need of food and warm blankets.
“I had to intervene as I always do by getting food for them,” Twala said.
Twala said the most disturbing thing was that most of the businesses that have been destroyed were the ones supporting his charity work to help those in need of basics for them to survive. “I had people from Sandton to help with food parcels for the children and pregnant mothers.
“I have also been going to homes of the elderly and the disabled where I have been delivering such goods. The past few days have been horrific in the history of our township,” said Twala.
He said many people have already been feeling the pinch. They come to his house seeking food because they don’t have anything to eat at home.
The next few months, if not years, will be the hardest time for many people in the township, which is overcrowded and suffers high unemployment. “We will see crime, as many residents will be hungry.”
Twala, who has been helping the people of Alexandra for more than 40 years, said he is appealing to SA to help him with anything they can give. “I cannot do this alone. I don’t have the resources and capacity. I am appealing to the people to help me,” he said.
In Mthatha in the Eastern Cape taxi drivers assembled to protect the city’s malls after threats of looting were circulated on WhatsApp groups.
The Cape provincial chairperson of the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), Bishop Zola Yolelo, said members have been deployed to all malls in Mthatha since the beginning of the week to make sure there is stability and peace.
“We have a good relationship with business people around Mthatha and across the province, including the provincial government. Businesspeople employed our children so we cannot allow individuals to destroy and burn the little that we have as the Eastern Cape province,” Yolelo said.
“The people who are working in these shopping centres and malls are our clients. If we allow looters to destroy these properties we are the ones who are going to suffer.”
“No one will enter here in Mthatha and vandalise our properties. We are ready for them. All the shopping malls are open as we speak, and if anyone tries to cause destruction we will deal with them,” he added.
On 14 July angry taxi drivers in Nelson Mandela Bay went to city hall looking for controversial ANC politician Andile Lungisa, having heard he was involved in instigating civil unrest. Lungisa, who was suspended from the ANC for 18 months this week, was forced to attend a public meeting with the taxi drivers who told him he must openly denounce calls to loot.
As many business owners lost their shops during the looting, one Johannesburg woman with her own small business made a bold decision.
Meg Pascoe, owner of online artisanal confectioner The Counter, tweeted: “We’re not here to sell you sweets while our country burns… Direct the money you would’ve spent on fudge to those who really need it.”
She included a list of where and how best to help. Her Instagram also changed from product posts to resources and information to get people to act. And customers rallied.
“It would be tone deaf to ask people to buy fudge right now. Yes, our business will be affected by this (and already has been), but we have the means to cope. Using our ‘voice’ on social media is a no-brainer – even if we just convince 10 people to donate, it’s a win.”
Pascoe understands food supply chains in her business and is now working on helping get food and water into KwaZulu-Natal. Importantly, for her, it’s not the time to drown in despair or to sit back.
“I’ve no time for people who are negative without trying to assist or come up with solutions. We are an incredibly strong and resilient nation. And, I won’t lie, a tequila or two (when permitted) is a must!”
Some days some WhatsApp groups are the pits, full of downers, tension, fake news and fury – and you can’t leave.
“You could feel that mood change after lockdown Level 4. So many people on my street and in the groups were feeling depressed,” Fleur Honeywill from Kensington in Johannesburg said.
She decided to turn her garage wall, which is visible to passersby and motorists, into a mural. It features a boy on a horse, his arms embracing the horse, and the words: “I am a bit scared,” said the horse. “But we are less scared together.”
It is for her neighbourhood, she says – and anyone who needs to receive the message. Honeywill says it was meant to inspire hope in a time of the Covid-19 crisis, “but when I’ve looked at it over the past couple of days I’ve thought we need this even more with what has happened in the country”.
“We are a community, I did this mural for my community because we are a community and will get through this together,” she says.
This week Standton le Roux counted the costs after he lost his business of 25 years in the Letsoho Shopping Centre in Katlehong.
Le Roux’s business was looted and then petrol-bombed, burning everything inside and destroying the roof, between Monday night and Tuesday morning. Letsoho Shopping Centre had advised their tenants to close up on Sunday so they weren’t there when the destruction happened.
Stranton arrived with his wife Robyn on Tuesday afternoon. Robyn said, when she saw the devastation: “Well, we just broke down in tears. It’s something that was built over 25 years ago. It’s like losing somebody, you know. We didn’t know that it was that bad.
“It was devastating to see that everything my husband, everything that they put in, all the years, has just gone up in flames in a matter of hours,” she said.
Yet many people from the community arrived to help them clean up the rubble, among them Noxolo Fani, who runs PL Construction.
When she saw the destruction and looting happening across the country, she decided to use her resources in the construction industry to help local businesses out.
“I just felt like being in construction and having a certain kind of network, it was possible for us to help in sort of getting them back on their feet,” said Fani.
“So amongst us there’s criminals,” Fani said, “but you know what, I think 90% of South Africans have good hearts and we’ve come out of worse situations, if you look at our history. So we’ll get through this also.” DM168
Coordinated by Estelle Ellis. Contributions by Bheki Simelane, Ufrieda Ho, Everson Luhaga, Julia Evans, Hoseya Jubase, Lungi Langa and Jo-Mangaliso Ndhlela.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores until 24 July 2021. From 31 July 2021, DM168 will be available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores.
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