JULY 2021 RIOTS
Families still searching for loved ones believed to have died in Tembisa Plaza unrest
Almost two years after the July 2021 riots, reconstruction is well under way at Tembisa Plaza. Families who believe their loved ones died at the shopping centre are still searching for answers.
In June 2022, Daily Maverick reported that 2 bodies were believed to be buried under the rubble at Tembisa Plaza and that six were retrieved on 26 July 2021, which meant six more bodies were still missing. The Tembisa South police confirmed this at the time.
The police said the remainder of the bodies could not be retrieved because the building “was falling every day”, making it unsafe.
The families of some of the missing persons told Daily Maverick they believed their loved ones died inside the Shoprite store at the mall when a gas cylinder exploded and caused a fire, which affected several stores, while the mall was being looted. The City of Ekurhuleni confirmed the gas explosion in a press statement at the time.
Since the disappearance of their loved ones, the families of the missing persons have spent almost two years searching and checking mortuaries, clinics and hospitals.
“I last saw her on the morning of the 13th [of July 2021] when she said she was going to the Shoprite store at the plaza,” said Milena Rodriguez, whose mother Sylvia Rodriguez is one of the missing people.
“I last saw my wife on 13 July 2021 when she and a friend and neighbour said they were going to the plaza,” said Caiphus Phuti Moremi, whose wife Thabitha Kgabo is still missing.
Kgabo and Rodriguez’s families believe their loved ones perished inside the plaza when the gas bottle exploded and they were buried under rubble.
Police told Daily Maverick that they had used sniffer dogs to retrieve the six bodies under the rubble.
According to one of the families, police told them a few weeks ago that nothing was found when the rubble was cleared. This is despite the reported discovery of human remains under the rubble when reconstruction at the plaza began a few months ago.
The discovery of human remains in January 2023 at the Shoprite site was more than a glimmer of hope for the affected families.
But in recent months, all the rubble has been removed and the families are still searching for answers.
When Daily Maverick visited the plaza on 28 March, construction at the Shoprite site was under way. The site was clean and rubble had been replaced by piles of bricks for rebuilding.
“The police guys are very disappointing. They have removed everything in that building, but I have not received any communication,” said Cremildo Rodriguez, whose wife Sylvia remains missing, when he learnt that the rubble had been removed.
Milena Rodriguez said she was hopeful after the discovery of the human remains that someone would finally believe that there were people buried under the rubble. Like her father, she also expressed her disappointment with the police.
“Even the discovery of the human remains, we learnt about that through the media,” she said.
“In December last year, we went home and performed a ceremony in her honour where we buried my mother’s clothes in place of her body. That was heart-wrenching.”
“All we want for her now is for her to be buried in a dignified manner,” Milena said.
A year after the incident, in mid-2022, Daily Maverick revisited the Rodriguez and Moremi families and documented their frustration, pain and grief.
“I know this was not anyone’s fault, but everyone has moved on with their lives like nothing happened,” Milena said.
“All we ever wanted for my wife as a family was closure,” Moremi told Daily Maverick.
Cremildo Rodriguez has struggled to cope at work since he learnt of the removal of the rubble and the fact that nothing was found. He said his family’s pain was aggravated by the loss of his mother who the family buried in early March.
Milena said: “Two weeks ago, I went past the plaza and they were still busy cleaning the rubble but to my surprise, the police told my daddy that they found nothing. I find this impossible.”
On a recent visit to the plaza, a security guard manning one of the closed entrances said the rebuilding was well under way and that aspiring workers were asked to send their CVs to the Lethabo service centre.
“They do not care about us, these people,” said Moremi.
According to police, demolition and cleaning of the rubble at the plaza began on 12 January 2023. The human remains were recovered a week later, but the families only learnt about the clearing of the rubble two weeks later.
Rodriguez and Moremi said they were waiting for DNA results after tests were conducted to identify the recovered human remains. They said they were not told when the results would be ready, but said that they were assured the process would be expedited. Only one body was found.
“I will never stop asking questions until I know what happened to my wife in that plaza,” Rodriguez said.
“We are all being tested for links with the recovered remains of a single body. Where are the rest of the bodies?” Rodriguez asked.
Both families are not upbeat about awaiting the results because they believe the rest of the bodies were removed to absolve the plaza and Shoprite of any responsibility.
Since Daily Maverick was approached by the families of the missing people in late 2021, the entities involved have not been willing to shed more light.
Shoprite has repeated the same response to inquiries, saying it was just a tenant at Tembisa Plaza. On 28 February 2023, Shoprite said:
“As indicated before, the supermarket chain empathises with the family members and understands their wish to get closure; however, as this is a police matter, we are not able to comment.”
Mowana Properties, which manages the plaza, said the police told them the matter was closed.
On 16 March 2022, Mowana Properties said that it couldn’t say with certainty that there were bodies buried under the rubble at the plaza.
Tembisa Police Station commander Colonel Nthipe Boloka previously told Daily Maverick he believed the rest of the bodies remained buried under the rubble. However, when approached last month, Boloka said he was strongly advised against speaking on the matter.
The owners of Tembisa Plaza, the Public Investment Corporation (PIC), revealed that it had employed the services of a contractor to clear the rubble.
The PIC acknowledged that the families needed closure and that it would be fair for the families to be invited during the clearing of the rubble. However, the PIC then ignored several inquiries about the missing people.
On 1 March, PIC investor relations executive Adrian Lackay said the PIC could not do anything about the matter because it was not law enforcement.
“The PIC is not law enforcement or a health and safety agency. Surely these are functions of the South African Police Service?” he asked.
It is indeed the function of the SAPS to handle the matter, but the police appear to have repeatedly failed the families of those who remain missing. Now, while the rebuilding of Tembisa Plaza is under way, the answers that those families are looking for might be buried forever. DM