Chamber of Business CEO: Violence and vandalism was orchestrated, took months of planning
On the fourth day of the SAHRC hearings into the July looting, the focus shifted to the devastating impact on businesses in KwaZulu-Natal. 'I can’t tell people to reinvest their money if politicians won’t stand with me and say this is wrong,' the hearing was told on Thursday.
The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) heard on Thursday that the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg & Midlands Chamber of Business (PMCB), Melanie Veness, had seen seven dead bodies while surveying the damage to businesses following the eight days of violence that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal and to a lesser extend Gauteng in July.
Veness also told the commission that she believed the riots were not “just about looting”.
“[It] was about destroying, it was orchestrated. I think that was the hardest thing for me, you could see how orchestrated it was — water sprinkling systems were disabled, linings were pulled out of ceilings, machines were emptied of fuel to try and set the machines on fire, [the looters] destroyed everything that was in there, they defecated all over the place.”
The criminality started following the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma on charges of contempt of court. Zuma was released on medical parole after serving a fraction of his 15-month sentence.
According to Veness, the unrest cost the 700 or so private-sector businesses belonging to her chamber “over R1-billion”, but final figures were still awaited from insurance companies.
Larger companies were able to claim from the South African Special Risk Insurance Association (Sasria), said Veness, but “a lot of medium businesses didn’t have that cover. Lots of businesses found themselves woefully underinsured.
“Small businesses weren’t insured. One of my black-owned businesses in Plessislaer, his stock was destroyed, his business set alight, it set him back seven years. He had bought parts to manufacture machinery, those were destroyed. He has gone back to working under a tree in Dambuza (near Edendale township).”
The SAHRC is in KwaZulu-Natal hearing evidence from those affected by the unrest, which cost the national economy over R50-billion, led to the loss of over 300 lives — the vast majority in KZN — and, at conservative estimates, left over 100,000 people unemployed.
Premier Sihle Zikalala, who is also expected to testify before the commission in the coming weeks, has stated publicly that the majority of those who died during the unrest were looters that were “crushed” and killed while stampeding for stolen goods, or who had been fighting amongst themselves over the same.
“That first day I stood in Barnsley Road (near Edendale township), I thought I was in a war zone, most of the businesses were destroyed….I walked past young people’s bodies on the road,” Veness told the commission.
She said it was “absolutely horrific” to see the bodies, which she later described as “twisted”.
China mall in Barnsley Road was completely burned and gutted. Makro was looted over a few days, as was a SAB warehouse and dozens of other businesses, including the historic Asmalls.
“I asked politicians to come and stand with me and say they condemned what had happened, to say they support any investment in this region, and that the people responsible would face the full might of the law. I am still waiting,” said Veness.
Veness said she had tried to contact premier Zikalala, but he did not answer her calls. As for the response from Msunduzi mayor Mzimkhulu Thebolla, Veness said it sounded like he “was commiserating”, but that there was also “talk from the ground that he agreed with what was happening”.
“He never stood with me publicly and said that what had happened was wrong.
“I can’t tell people to reinvest their money if politicians won’t stand with me and say this is wrong.”
Many of the thousands of looters were armed and allegedly drunk, hundreds descended on business areas and malls, with scores driving to their preferred places of looting.
Police were largely absent in trying to curb the unrest, and residents throughout the province in townships and suburbs resorted to fending for themselves by creating impromptu community patrols to defend their families, properties and food sources such as shopping centres, while waiting for the deployment of the defence force.
“[The unrest is] something I don’t want to think can happen in our country again. The trust deficit is going to cost our city and our province and our country. The action we wanted to see [from police] in response to it was absent.”
Veness said that she regularly attended a “business fighting crime” forum, had a good relationship with SAPS, and had cell phone numbers of police brigadiers and captains, but that “literally no one was responding” during the unrest.
“[SAPS] may have been overwhelmed for a while, but the looting went on for days. People sat on top of their looted goods waiting for transport to arrive. There was no adequate response during or afterwards.”
Her relationship with SAPS prior to the riots was “good” said Veness, and each party would share with the other information that could assist in tackling crime, but there had been no early warning for the riots.
Veness said that while she desired an equal society, there was “a tendency to make what happened in July about that inequality”.
“People who led the insurrection used that to their advantage. It was too well orchestrated. To see what was spray-painted on walls — Free Zuma, Ramaphosa must go back to Venda, White monopoly Capital, it was about power….”
If the riots were in response to economic needs, said Veness, the unrest would have happened “organically”.
“This was planned, it took months and months of planning and the modus operandi was the same everywhere.”
Businesses had lost 15 years of growth because of the riots, said Veness. “We have an exacerbation of employment. People are getting paid out, but will they put that back into the economy?” DM
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