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July riots aftermath: Families of two missing women ‘...

DM168

UNREST AFTERMATH

Families ‘torn apart’ as they continue search for two women who went missing during July 2021 riots

Cremildo Rodriques holds a picture of his wife Silvia Rodriques, who was last seen on the 13th of July 2021 during the July Unrest at Tembisa Plaza. Photo: Cebile Ntuli.

Two men believe their wives’ bodies are buried beneath the rubble of Tembisa Plaza following the 2021 unrest in Gauteng. All they want is to retrieve them and give them a decent burial.

Two neighbours and good friends, Thabitha Kgabo and Sylvia Rodriguez, set out from their homes to Tembisa Plaza on the morning of 13 July 2021. Their families never saw them again. The women’s husbands have been waging a futile battle for closure and are convinced the women’s bodies are buried beneath the rubble of the plaza after a fire erupted in the building during rampant looting.

When they left their homes amid the violent civil unrest, Kgabo and Rodriguez told their families that they were going to the Tembisa Plaza Shoprite. According to their husbands, both women, who would now be 32 and 40 respectively, never made it back to their homes in Tembisa.

Kgabo’s husband, Phuti Caiphus Moremi, told DM168 that his wife left behind their six-year-old twins, while Cremildo Rodriguez said his wife left behind three children between the ages of seven and 20.

July riots missing
Caiphus Moremi with his children, Bontle and Bohlale, who lost saw their mother, Thabita Kgabo, on the morning of the riots at Tembisa Plaza Shoprite on 13 July 2021. (Photo: Cebile Ntuli)

Both women didn’t take their cellphone with them that morning.

Describing the events that day, Tembisa police station commander Colonel Nthipe Boloka told DM168 that residents had been stealing from the Tembisa Plaza Shoprite when the building caught alight.

Both husbands said the police told them there had been an explosion and a fire in the building and that some people were trapped inside. In a press release, the City of Ekurhuleni confirmed that an LPG cylinder caused a massive explosion in the building.

I know her bones are stacked up at the Shoprite building in Tembisa Plaza. The problem is that I’m powerless

However, no investigation has been undertaken by the City to establish the cause of the explosion. Boloka said six bodies were recovered and were positively identified.

A memorial service was held in November for five of the six people whose bodies were recovered from the rubble, bringing closure for grieving families. But DM168 has learnt that altogether there were about 12 people trapped in the building when it caught alight and while looting was under way in many shops.

Therefore, at least six more bodies are believed to be inside the shop.

An LPG cylinder caused a huge explosion in the Tembisa Plaza Shoprite building during the July 2021 unrest. At least six bodies are believed to still be inside the store.  (Photo: Cebile Ntuli)

This was confirmed by Boloka. “Six bodies were identified but another six [are] still missing and I believe they are inside Shoprite,” he told DM168 in March 2022. “The other bodies are trapped and the building is no longer safe because it falls every day. The station is waiting for the building to be demolished by the Tembisa Plaza management.”

Since 13 July 2021, the families of the two missing women have been searching for their loved ones. They said they have looked everywhere, including mortuaries, police cells, prisons and hospitals. According to the Tembisa police, Rodriguez and Moremi were among those who opened missing person cases, and sniffer dogs were deployed to the scene at the time.

Rodriguez is adamant that his wife’s body is buried beneath the rubble. “I know her bones are stacked up at the Shoprite building in Tembisa Plaza. The problem is that I’m powerless,” Rodriguez said.

According to Rodriguez and Moremi, they have exhausted all options and looked everywhere – except beneath the rubble at the plaza where, according to them, their wives were last seen at Shoprite with others who were looting. The rubble has still not been cleared and the families of the victims are still begging for the site to be cleared so they can gain access to the bodies of their loved ones and bury them in a dignified manner.

Cremildo Rodriques, husband of Silvia Rodriques – who was last seen on 13 July 2021 during the unrest at Tembisa Plaza – with their son Milton (holding a picture of his mother) and Milka. The couple has another daughter, Milenna. (Photo: Cebile Ntuli)

This is despite the fact that it’s been 11 months since the incident. During the civil unrest, more than 340 people lost their lives in various parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, and property running into billions of rands was destroyed.

According to Moremi, he last saw his wife at 10am on 13 July 2021, when she said she was going to Shoprite at the plaza.

He said they were aware of the spreading looting and he had warned his wife not to take part.

“I had warned my wife that morning not to go anywhere near the plaza because we already knew what was happening,” said Moremi. “A little later that morning I went to visit a neighbour but when I came back she had not returned.”

Detailing his pain, Moremi said the family has been torn apart by Kgabo’s disappearance.

“It would be better if they gave us access to the Shoprite so that I can bury her and tomorrow be able to say to my children that this is where [their] mother is buried. I want to be able to point out my wife’s grave.”

‘The children are suffering’

Rodriguez said he was finding it hard to cope at work and at home. He too said he had last seen his wife on the morning of 13 July. When she woke up, she said she was going to the plaza with her friend Kgabo.

Both men are seeking closure.

“The mere thought that the chances of finding her alive are zero kills me, but I’m even more shattered that I can’t access her body,” Rodriguez said. “We have tried everything to gain access to the Shoprite.

“The children are suffering. I have run out of explanations.”

Shoprite’s media centre responded on email that it empathised with the family members “and understands their wish to get closure on the death of their [loved] ones. It is, however, now a police matter and the South African Police Service (SAPS) should be contacted for assistance. Shoprite is a tenant in the shopping centre.”

When asked about an obligation to help the family find closure, the supermarket chain added: “As indicated before, the supermarket chain empathises with the family members and understands their wish to find closure.

“However, as this is a police matter, we are not able to comment and the SAPS should be contacted.’’

According to Moremi, the police told him that they searched the building and found nothing. But when forensic results came out at the end of September 2021, the police said their search for the bodies in the building did not extend right to the back of the building because it was burnt and badly damaged.

DM168’s attempts to confirm the exact nature and extent of the search independently from police or other sources were unsuccessful.

The damaged roof of the Shoprite building at Tembisa Plaza. DM168 was prevented from going inside. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

When DM168 contacted the Tembisa Plaza centre manager, Tlou Mafifi, he distanced himself and said the matter was beyond his jurisdiction, saying he only managed the day-to-day running of the centre.

After weeks of trying to get hold of the plaza’s managing agents, Mowana Properties, its communications and brand manager, Iggy Sathekge, responded to DM168: “Mowana Properties as the managing agent for the Tembisa Plaza [has] been to the SAPS Tembisa South and met with the investigating officer, Detective Manamela, and the Station Commander, Colonel Boloka, regarding the matter. They both advised that the case has been closed and could not do anything further at the moment as the place is not safe due to structural damages.”

According to Sathekge, the police recovered six bodies on 26 July.

“Unfortunately, we cannot say with certainty at the moment that the alleged missing persons’ remains are trapped under the rubble. The police advised us to inform them if we find more bodies when the demolitions start.

“At the moment, we are not sure when this process will commence, as we are waiting for the landlord to finalise the process,” Sathekge said. “What are the owners of the plaza thinking, keeping dead and burnt bodies in their building for so long?”

There are at least four other families who are missing their loved ones, who they believe remain buried beneath the rubble at Tembisa Plaza.

After months of tracking the owners of the building, a process that was also hampered by Mowana Properties refusing to reveal who the owners are, it turned out that the building is owned by the Public Investment Corporation (PIC).

“The demolition and redevelopment of Tembisa Plaza will take place once the contractor has been appointed. Various factors have impacted on the relevant timelines relating to the demolition and redevelopment of the Plaza,” PIC spokesperson Sekgoela Sekgoela said.

“This included the need for the insurance company with which Tembisa Plaza is insured to assess damage to the building.

“The demolitions could not start until the insurance assessment process had been completed.

“Now that this has been completed, the process of appointing [a] demolitions contractor is under way and is subject to internal supply chain management processes.”

Added Rodriguez: “It’s 11 months now and still no one wants to take responsibility. This is very painful. What do I tell my kids, who also need to find closure for their mother’s horrible death?” 

A memorial service was held in November for some of these people whose bodies were recovered from the rubble, bringing closure for grieving family members.

During the civil unrest, more than 340 people lost their lives in various parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal and property running into billions of rands was destroyed. Daily Maverick made a huge effort to make sense of the deaths in the two provinces. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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