JULY RIOTS, ONE YEAR LATER
KZN unrest cost eThekwini businesses R70bn, and counting – survey
The small business owners that Daily Maverick spoke to said the latest figures ‘seem more believable’ than those previously released, which had placed the damage at R20bn in eThekwini and KZN, and about R50bn nationally.
A “deep dive” survey by the City of eThekwini, with the assistance of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DCCI), has shown that the devastating July 2021 riots cost the district’s private sector R70-billion, with that number expected to climb.
Despite confidence by at least one chamber CEO and the president of another, that civil unrest on the scale experienced during those eight days will not reoccur, small business owners, in particular, have told Daily Maverick that they believe a repeat is “inevitable”.
The DCCI represents 3,000 members from the formal sector and 45,000 from the informal sector.
Its CEO, Palesa Phili, told Daily Maverick in response to emailed questions that the financial loss to members because of the looting was “truly shattering”.
She said the deep dive revealed that losses in sales and stock amounted to R40-billion, while the value of lost equipment and machinery totalled R20-billion. Damage to property had been valued at R15-billion, with 9,100 jobs being placed at risk.
Sixteen-thousand businesses had been negatively impacted by the riots, said Phili.
Researchers were still tallying the costs, said the chamber’s chief growth officer, Zanele Khomo. “We are expecting those numbers to increase,” she said.
The small business owners that Daily Maverick spoke to said the latest figures “seem more believable” than those previously released, which had placed the damage at R20-billion in eThekwini and KZN, and about R50-billion nationally. But their biggest worry, they emphasised, was a repeat of the same scale of violence, with all agreeing that this was “inevitable”.
“Those people are back on the streets now, so tell me what has changed?” asked a KwaMashu businessman who did not want to be named. “They got a slap on the wrist, but my business was flattened.”
The South African Human Rights Commission, during its hearings into the violence, heard from the NPA that 2,155 people would be prosecuted for unrest-related offences. Many of the offenders, however, were simply fined or, in the case of young people, admitted to diversion programmes.
It was the increasing failure to hold criminals to account that angered the business owners. Besides the actual looters, a clutch of 17 alleged instigators was also arrested. Only one of the 17 was denied bail, while one matter was struck from the court roll earlier this year.
The inability, or unwillingness, to arrest the “masterminds” of the violence has further eviscerated trust in South Africa’s security sectors.
It is also the seeming reluctance of authorities to bring the politically connected, like Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, to book that fans the anger of law-abiding citizens. The daughter of former president Jacob Zuma sent several tweets during the riots that celebrated the destruction, which is alleged to have egged on the criminals.
Phili said there needed to be “a firmer approach when tackling unlawful situations”, such as the riots.
“[W]e need to see criminal, unlawful behaviour being punished, prosecuted and brought to justice to avoid history repeating itself. Government needs to work with the business community to find collaborative, proactive and sustainable solutions.”
A repeat of the unrest
The proprietor of a small business in a Durban shopping centre, whose store was stripped during the violence, told Daily Maverick that he had “no doubt” there would be a repeat of the unrest.
“The only thing that has changed for me since July last year is that I have had to try to find money to restart my business, while the people who did this to my store are walking free, and [are] probably shopping here as we speak.”
That business has recently closed, joining a myriad others in the city.
Besides the riots, Covid-19 lockdowns, load shedding, flooding and truck blockades by disgruntled local drivers have affected the ability to run a profitable business with any kind of longevity.
Add to that the armed mafioso “business forums” that prowl construction sites demanding cuts of contracts, and business in the city is, as one executive at a multinational told Daily Maverick, “hard and frustrating”.
But it was the riots, according to the previously mentioned store owner, that “broke me”.
“They even took my double adaptors from the wall. For human beings to behave in that way, to just grab and take, steal, bring their children with to steal, and ignore police when they saw them, what does that say about [them] and this country?”
DCCI president Nigel Ward told Daily Maverick that he understood the trepidation of the small business owners, which was why chambers in the province were trying to keep their members informed about progress in intelligence gathering capabilities and communication with government authorities.
“I don’t believe we will see anything to the extent of what we saw in July last year. I think there is greater awareness, a lot more structure into, ironically, the readiness of primarily the SAPS, and the ability to [mobilise] the defence force a lot quicker,” said Ward.
He said that in several areas of eThekwini, there had been “very good collaboration” between community policing forums, the SAPS and the metro. “There is a lot more preparedness [now].”
Ward said that although there was no data indicating there would not be flare-ups, it was most likely that they would be in “smaller concentrated areas, not the scale that we saw last year”.
There were too many lessons learnt from the 2021 riots that were now embedded into structures, he said. “The signals will be there long before they happen.”
An example of better preparedness could be found in the handling of last month’s truck blockades along the critical N3 corridor and other routes, he said. “It should have never happened in the first place, but [authorities] were a lot quicker in responding, and a lot more direct in what they are trying to do.”
Melanie Veness, the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg & Midlands Chamber of Business, agreed with Ward. “I don’t think we’re expecting more unrest. The business community is better organised now, we have a good intelligence network and private security is working more closely with the police.”
She said that the province’s economy was, however, struggling to recover “because of hesitancy to invest, partly because of a loss of confidence post the July unrest and because the environment is not conducive”.
Load shedding and infrastructure failures were the main contributors to the poor operating environment, she told Daily Maverick.
“Some businesses have fully reopened. Some small businesses have not been able to reopen, others are struggling to achieve pre-unrest levels of operation. Several businesses rationalised and others have chosen to keep part of their businesses open here and to test operations in other localities.
“The danger of this is that, if operations in the other locations turn out to be more feasible, we’ll see further disinvestment as operations slowly move across to the new locations. Some facilities that were destroyed are still being constructed. We’ve lost some stores and warehousing to other provinces,” said Veness. DM