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Life after looting: ‘God left South Africa long ago’

Soldiers walk past vandalised ATMs at Diepkloof Square in Soweto on 13 July 2021. Residents in areas of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal where looting and violence took place are battling to find food and basic services amid the devastation. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

With shops and malls looted and empty, the real struggle to survive begins. Tshabalira Lebakeng is a journalist who lives in Orlando. This is his account of trying to find food last week after the violence and looting stopped. 

“I’m sorry Sir to tell you that our tests say you are diabetic.” That’s what the nurse at Diepkloof clinic told me in 2018. That changed everything about how I have to eat. I have to eat healthy food. No more amagwinya or fried eggs.  

On Wednesday after the looting, I woke up. The streets were quiet.  Maybe people had food and were cooking. Or maybe they were hiding.  

I took my diabetic meds with boiled carrots and potatoes and tea for breakfast.

But I noticed I’m running out of food. I had two carrots, an onion, some pumpkin and a half packet of brown flour left. I had some money in the bank from writing my story, but I didn’t have cash.  

So I took myself to the Engen garage at Orlando, 1.5km away. There was a tuckshop and an ATM machine at the garage.  My plan was to get some money and buy some food. On the way to the garage, I noticed all the tuckshops on the street were closed.  I passed a Shoprite, my low price shop to get food but it had been vandalised.  The doors were all open and the shelves were completely empty.  

Before I got to the garage, I passed two freezing old ladies with their shopping bags. They wore big coats and scarves with warm hats. They asked me if I knew if the post office was open. They needed to get their Sassa social grants. I told them nothing seemed open. No banks, no shops, no post office. 

The one old lady looked at me and said: “My son, this is the end of South Africa. I don’t know what I am going to do with my grandchildren. Their mother left them with me. I don’t know where she is in this world. Now at my age, I’m suffering.” 

She looked at me crossly. 

“You see what you are doing with your girlfriends and then they go away when they have babies and leave them with me. I can’t enjoy my pension. I have to share my Sassa money with the grandchildren. I don’t know what to give my grandkids to eat. I need my Sassa money today.” 

I told her, “Me too. I’m in the street hoping to get lucky and find something myself.”  

She told me that there is a lady who’s got a vegetable table just before the garage. When I got to the garage shop it was clean. Like a church. There was nothing on the shelves. The ATM was out of service. So I asked the lady if I could get some tomatoes and pay her cash back later. I have money in the bank but I need an ATM to get it.  She told me, ”Sorry Sir, I can’t do that.” 

At the garage, dirty, dusty kids aged between four and five were playing. They were digging in the rubble next to a fallen door. There was rubbish everywhere. They were looking to find leftovers.  

I wondered if their fathers and mothers had looted the day before. Will they grow up believing crime is okay if it puts food on the table?  

So I took off rushing to see if the FNB ATM across the road was open. But when I got there I was shocked to see five boys — young boys wearing old pants and jackets, but with dust on their faces and shovels and spades. Four of them were digging the ATM from the wall. The one, Zembe, was sitting making a joint of marijuana. He was telling the others to dig. If they dug hard he would give them a smoke. I looked at them in surprise. I thought I was dreaming. 

One of the boys, Mandla said to me: “Big man. There is no money here. Last night the lucky ones took the money. We are trying to take out this metal for recycling.” 

I asked them why they didn’t run when they saw me. What if I was a policeman?  

Jeep said: “No uncle I know you. You are an artist running a drama project with kids.” 

Tshabalira Lebakeng with Ngizwe, a theatre group for children and youth in Soweto which he runs. (Photo: Mark Lewis)

Hayibo! I was surprised. He says “Yes uncle you are a good man. My sister once in 2012 attended your drama classes.” 

I asked him why he is doing this? He will get on the bad side of the police.

“No,” he said, “There are no police in Orlando. And even the police they buy food from the looting people.”

They said when things are normal they will sell this metal. 

I didn’t know what to do. I walked back to my back room. On my way back this guy stops me and says if I need anything I must shout. He’s got things from food to anything I can think of.  

I told him I don’t buy stolen goods. He told me it’s not stolen. “I just took the stuff free from the shop.”  He told me he has to do something to survive. 

“Because South Africa will look like Zimbabwe in the next coming five years.” He said I should think deeply about this government. 

“They lock us up in our homes saying there is this Corona. They take billions and billions of money and we have no electricity or water. But politicians are living a nice and soft life.

“So you telling me that by looting for my life I am the one doing a wrong thing? We are starving. The whole world is falling down. The rich get richer and poor people they are starving in their homes,” he said. 

I really didn’t know what to say to this man so I just told him that one day it will be okay and we must pray to God to help us. 

“God left South Africa long ago,” he said. 

When I got in my room I locked the door. I felt really emotional thinking about what I had seen and what will happen to me in the next coming weeks. If the shops don’t open and I can’t get money, how will I eat? 

Then I looked behind my little grocery cabinet. Hey! I was so happy and excited.  There was a packet of Knorr soya mince soup. I was crazy happy asking myself how did this soup fall behind the cabinet? I need to enjoy every cup of soup I have.  

I reminded myself that I had once been a street kid. When I was 12 years old I lived on the streets of Durban for five years. So I will survive this. One day at a  time.

I had a new plan. 

I thought I would borrow money — just R12 for a taxi to town and my friend was going to meet me there and help me shop. But none of my neighbours would lend me the money.  So I walked to my aunt’s house. She lives in Diepkloof three kilometres away. She works as a cleaner for government in town. She said she had some money but it was in the bank and the ATMs  in central Johannesburg were all closed. 

The next morning a guy I know phoned me. He said he had three fridges and didn’t I want to buy one? Low price. He said I must move quickly because now the police are coming door-to-door to look for stolen goods.  

“You are a journalist,” he said. “You must have money.” 

I asked him how much he wanted for the fridge. He told me at the shop it’s R15,000 but he will give it to me for R1,000.  I asked him when he started to smoke nyaope? 

He told me he is not smoking. It’s just he wants to get rid of the stuff he stole at the shops. I told him:

“I’m sorry I can’t help. I don’t even have R12 for a taxi to town.” 

He replied: “Now you are a man of big newspapers,” he says. “You getting stingy and God won’t bless you because you don’t want to help others.” 

I dropped the call. I didn’t want to fight with such a stupid person. 

Then an hour later my friend Emma called me. She always calls to check if I am okay but we haven’t seen each other in a long time because of Covid. We run a theatre group together called Ngizwe which started in 2012. Ngizwe is a safe place for kids on the streets to come together and play.  Four years ago we took a play we wrote called The Little One — a story based on my experiences of living on the streets in Durban.  We took the play to Grahamstown and won an award. 

I never had a chance to be a child. At Ngizwe the kids can play and enjoy being kids. But since Corona, we haven’t been able to meet. Emma organised an Uber for me and I was going to meet her at Rand Steam Shopping Centre where I could draw money and buy food.  

When the Uber arrived I was happy like a child seeing an ice cream. I was getting away from the world of loud noise where people shout at night “Mbambe viba asimbulale”: “Catch him. Stop him. Let’s kill him.”

When the Uber arrived at Rand Steam, it smelt so nice. I could forget the smell of burning tyre smoke or the horrible smell of nappies dumped outside the street. It’s like being in another country.  

Then comes my friend Emma with a beautiful smile. She was so happy to see me after all these months in lockdown.  

We shopped at Pick n Pay and then when we finished we talked about the future of our project and what had happened to the children. Our ‘little one’, was forced by her mother to go to KZN to be a sangoma.  Jabu finished matric but is trying to study. He doesn’t have a job. But Thami is studying law at Wits and wants to be a politician to change the world.  Emma says Thandi got a degree in film and TV production from Tshwane University Technikon. So to hear of some of my kids doing well makes me so happy. 

We talked about what we want to do in 2022 if we can find a space and money again and bring the kids back. I don’t have a proper education. That is why I’m happy when I hear these kids are doing well. 

When the Uber came to take me back home, my heart was broken. I felt I had been out on bail.  Now I was going back to reality. But I had food and money … for now.  DM/MC

Tshabalira Lebakeng is a writer with the Homeless Writers Project. This story was written by Tshabalira with assistance from Harriet Perlman.  


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All Comments 54

  • Will someone please make sure that this article is read by President Ramaphosa and the useless bunch he calls a cabinet?

  • Truly a sad story. The trouble is, looting has been the social compact of our country for too long. Politicians loot the state coffers, municipal managers loot billions, the president facilitates the Guptas to strip the SOE’ s bare, tenderpreneurs gorge at the public trough.

    BEE ensures that the best man doesn’t get the job, and the declining tax base is loaded with ever increasing social grants.

    Forget white monopoly capital, the state only runs monopolies and extends the egregious privilege to it’s labour voting base by ballooning its wages while the rest of the country is unemployed.

    We have become a get something for nothing nation.

    In the northern suburbs behind our high walls we decry that soweto doesn’t pay for electricity, but that’s just more of the social compact. Anyway, how much cheaper would it be without having to pay for the corruption costs being recovered? And the same goes for all municipality price gouging.

    So our man in the street is late to the party but he’s just trying to get his turn while the government is pushing
    for legal theft with EWC and more BEE.

    And let’s not forget that the riots started as tiff between the looting factions of the ruling party.

    Cry the beloved country indeed. Ours is a country that has never tasted justice.

  • So many good men and women like you out there. Maybe this disaster shows how important a law abiding society is and how much we rely on a healthy private sector.
    The ANC can learn from this that without business the country grinds to a halt.
    Time to recognise this and turn away from racist BEE legislation that is the root of so many ills and move to remove all legislation that prevents growth. We have world class business people here, we are the solution not the problem!

  • My first ever comment …. Yet with all of our 11 languages to choose from , I don’t have the right words .
    THANK YOU for finding the words and painting the picture . This is not ‘behind the scenes’ reporting . This is the scene
    Go well
    Go with God
    He hasn’t left South Africa

  • Heartbreaking. Thankyou for publishing this DM. Thsabalira, thankyou for this painful witness. May we all hear it with our pockets and feet and hands.

  • This on-the-ground writing is so important in our shattered society. As SA citizens we pass one another in the night, clueless about one another’s experiences. It seems that this suits government just fine – divide and rule. It makes me feel complicit, powerless to effect change, and deeply angry. When do we get to be one people? and in a position to know one another’s strifes and to actually make a difference for all of us? Integrate us on the ground in terms of housing and opportunities, you’ll find that the majority of South Africans will be in support of this.

  • I have feelings for you Tshabalira but I also hope that you realise that what you are experiencing is the fruit of the majority of this country voting to keep the ANC running the place. I have great faith and hope in what our president is trying to achieve but it is time that the people of South Africa stand up and support him publicly and say yes Mr Rhamaposa – get rid of that corrupt and greedy rubbish and put individuals into power who have the the welfare of the people in their heart, not personal gain.

  • Thank you Thsabalira for a heart wrenching story. It sounds so banal to say people like you, me and Emma can change this dreadful reality one small step at a time.

  • Thank you for writing this article, a perspective that so many of us need to read, may you never go hungry again, and may you always have helpful friends

  • If we think, the privileged, that this country is hopeless… imagine how the disenfranchised feel about it. For them it is truly a wasteland. My prayers are with SA, please can we address the inequality? Create the society we need. No one’s possessions or lives are secure while there is such disparity between the haves and the have nots. It is not sustainable.

  • Thsabalira, thank you. After all it took to get simple food to your table you took the trouble, with Harriet, to bring us your story. Everyone who reads this is fed by you today. I wish CR would read this for greater strength, I wish the corrupted would read this to find shame, I wish everyone would read this to know better where we are. Your voice is a compass for us. Thank you.

  • When Zuma and Ace et al ask what they have done wrong, please read this piece aloud to them. My heart breaks for you, Tshabalira, and your community. One moment of reprieve is like parole. God has not left South Africa. It is the reverse.
    Keep writing. We need your voice.

  • Wow. Thank you Mr Lebakeng. Please can someone make this article compulsory reading before the next session of Parliament for all Big Man trough-feeding ANC officials to digest along with their Moet and cake.

  • What jumped out at me from this article was the comment by a granny lamenting how grandchildren are left with her to support on her meagre pension. When will the call for responsible parenting become a goverment initiative?

  • A truly down to earth graphic account – thank you for publishing Tshabalira’s experience of trying to survive one day at a time in Orlando. I pray that at least one municipal representative for Orlando reads this and draws the plight of ‘unrepresented’ residents to the attention of the relevant authorities.

  • Thankyou for this beautiful, heartfelt article, Tshabalira. God is very present in your article. We can only hope for a better day and that you and Des Erasmus can win an award for your incredible articles.

  • Wow. Such a heartbreaking but powerful story. I wish you well with your writing career and pray you get paid well for it when you get published.

  • Please update the link to the Homeless Writers Project. It does not seem correct. I would like to see how I can support the project.

  • For one who claims to not have a ‘proper education’ … you are doing exceptionally well. Well not in the crass material sense at least. The poignancy of your story is humbling. It is always gratifying to know how some of the people you have tried to ‘lead by example’ have gone on to ‘achieve’ in life . That does not detract from the disappointment of finding others who did not ‘make’ it, or are floundering. In life, unfortunately we can’t have one without the other. They are the two sides of the same coin of life. Best wishes with your endeavours .

  • Thank you DM for bringing us these stories from Tshabalira and the Homeless Writers Project. They give insights which are not easy to find elsewhere. Please do continue commissioning more stories like this.

  • Here are real stories – how life is lived by ordinary people after the firestorm. Well written: sad with a little hope. Keep writing, keep recording your life.

  • This is a really great article. Thank you so much. Writing like this gives us insight into why people looted as well as the suffering of the aftermath. Brilliant writing.

  • There is only one thing wrong with this story – it will not be read by the useless and corrupt cadres who have caused this mess in the first place.

  • I don’t know if you have ever heard the comment “Man proposes, God disposes”?
    Maybe what happened is God disposing after the ANC having proposed?

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences in Orlando East – it was an eye opener for me. I really wish I could say more , do more. Most importantly I hope God will return to the streets of South Africa. You and your friend Emma and your theatre group are already making that possible and there’s ‘redemption’ for those kids digging up the FNB ATM because they recognized that. I cannot pay you a better compliment than Jeep’s: “Yes uncle you are a good man. My sister once in 2012 attended your drama classes.”

  • I do not need to read this article to know the ANC and the government has failed its people and fails South Africa as a nation. They are a disgrace to what the ANC stood for pre-1994 and post 1994 could have been the government fully supported by all. Shame on you Luthuli House! However I will read the article as it deserves reading and deserves to be heard, not like the pitiful family messages that leaves the population wondering what was this message actually saying! We need leaders with backbone and some horns.

  • Very sad and poignant. So many good people struggling. As a white person I wonder how bad do things have to get, and how much more proof of evil and wrong doing does a country have to go through before the same political party and others similar to them are voted out. How many generations are going to suffer until good lasting change happens, or will South Africans always vote along colour lines and not for what a party does and their track record. Why aren’t the young taught from an early age about the importance of their vote, and how they can bring change and to not just vote for the same as their parents but for people who truly have our country’s success at heart?

  • Heartbreaking journalism. Tshabalira’s story reminds us of the devastating inequality that exists. As we read this story from the warmth and comfort of our homes…I need to ask…’how can I help?’…DM perhaps you have some ideas??

  • This makes me so sad but strangely hopeful. Surely a country who has peopke like this and people who stand together, can overcome this? But then I think about Zimbabwe and my heart falters. Sir please write some more.

  • I cried reading that. He speaks for millions. Our country is so broken, how can we ever fix it? I feel hopeless and helpless.

  • I can only say I am very sorry that your life has fallen into disrepair. I help where I can. But I have also lost faith in the ANC

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