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Umlazi — the KZN township haunted by rampant nightly gunfire and morning-after body count

Umlazi — the KZN township haunted by rampant nightly gunfire and morning-after body count
A welcome sign of Umlazi township south of Durban on 10 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The streets of Umlazi teem with people — even during the week. The reason is the area’s high levels of unemployment and poverty and the social challenges that come with that. It’s one of the murder and rape capitals of South Africa.

Large parts of Umlazi township, especially Ward 38, have had no water for the past two months despite countless promises by the eThekwini Municipality to sort out the problems

The municipality says the water crisis was caused by the breakdown of a large pump supplying the area. Persistent water shortages, high levels of violent crime and scarcity of jobs are common complaints among residents here.

Almost every street pole and some of the township’s billboards are plastered with the posters of political parties.

In previous elections, the area was a battleground between the ruling ANC and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), with the ANC winning outright, and most wards in the township in the hands of the ruling party.

However, since 2014, the EFF has made a strong showing. And now there is a new contender — Jacob Zuma’s uMkhonto Wesizwe (MK) party. In the past few weeks, the ANC has brought its big guns to the township to woo voters. On Sunday, 12 May, it was the turn of former president Thabo Mbeki to hit the campaign trail.

Mdumiseni Ntuli, the ANC’s head of elections, who accompanied Mbeki, told supporters in Umlazi that the ANC would work hard in the area to ensure victory.

Mdu Nkosi, the IFP leader in eThekwini, said his party was also going all out to woo Umlazi voters, who were “angry about lack of service delivery and ANC corruption and are looking for a new government”.

Umlazi election boards

Election boards line the streets of Umlazi township south of Durban. 10 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

The new political kid on the block, the MK party, did not have many posters in Umlazi. But Mthokozisi Cele, an MK organiser in the township’s Ward 84, claimed his party would perform well there.

“People don’t have water, people are tired of crime and they want change. We are busy doing door-to-door campaigning and everyone we meet says they will vote MK. I am certain that we are going to win the majority of votes here because people love the MK party and they love Zuma,” Cele said.

Independent political analyst Wayne Sussman said, “In the past, the ANC has always been reliant on its strong base in places like Umlazi to win votes. But the formation of the MK party is a big concern for the ANC, hence its fervent campaign in the area. The ANC wants to make sure that its supporters come out in numbers to vote for the party. It will be interesting to see how much impact MK will have on the support base of the ANC in places like Umlazi.”

Problems, problems

Ntombenhle Makhanya, a 57-year-old woman who has lived in the township for many years, said, “Water is the latest of our problems. Crime is rife here — too many people are robbed and killed here and police are not doing anything about it. Unemployment is high — our children are sitting at home with nothing to do.

“I have been voting since 1994. I don’t know whether I will vote because it changes nothing. Politicians only make promises, promises they cannot keep.”

According to Statistics SA, Umlazi is the fourth-largest township in South Africa, with 404,000 residents. However, residents claim that as many as one million people could be living there.

Umlazi Magistrate Court

Umlazi Magistrate Court on 10 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Residents say the township has seen many changes and upheavals since the end of apartheid in 1994.

The biggest upheaval was the July 2021 unrest, which resulted in the loss of more than 350 lives, widespread looting and damage to property in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. The total loss to the economy was estimated to be in the region of R50-billion, with 150,000 job losses.

Shopping malls in Umlazi — Mega City, KwaMnyandu and Philani Mall — were looted and gutted. All of them have since been refurbished and reopened, but some of the jobs lost then never returned.

Read more in Daily Maverick: How the reports into the July 2021 unrest let South Africa down

Thokozani Msomi (61), whose family has lived in the same matchbox house in M Section for decades, said the township had changed significantly, especially in the past 30 years since the end of apartheid.

“There are some good changes, but there are bad changes too,” he said. “If it is not water shortages, it is sewers spilling into the streets. Now you hardly see any home with a vegetable garden — years ago there were many vegetable gardens in this township.

Umlazi township

A resident walking through Umlazi township. 10 May 2024. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

“Now there is no space to plant a garden — there are shanty towns everywhere you turn. People are flocking to this township every day from the countryside or from other African countries, all seeking employment.

“If you have a space in your yard, you get people asking you if they can erect a shack to live in for a while. It is clear that the township cannot cope with the number of people living or working within it,” he said, adding that crime, and especially murders, had increased.

“There were times when you could walk freely in the streets, even at night. Nowadays you are not even safe in your own homes. The sound of gunfire is a nightly occurrence and in the morning bodies are picked up.”

Sbusiso Mhlangu, a 60-year-old lifelong resident of K-Section, agreed, saying that after the July riots there had been an increase in killings and violent crime in the township.

“There are just too many guns going around. Some are used in drug turf wars and we, the residents, are often caught in the crossfire,” he said.

Violent and crime-ridden

According to police statistics, Umlazi township is one of the most violent and crime-ridden corners of South Africa. Between January and March 2024, Umlazi had the most contact crimes in the country, with 854 reported incidents.

The Umlazi police precinct also took the first spot nationally for car hijackings, with 63 cases reported between 1 January and 31 March. During that period, it had the second-highest number of murders in KZN, with 58, surpassed only by Inanda in the northern part of Durban, which reported 94 murders. Umlazi also had the second-highest number of rapes in the province, with 65 reported in the first three months of this year.

A member of the local community policing forum, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution from armed gangs, said factors exacerbating crime in the area were unemployment, drugs and related turf wars, and police incapacity.

“There are many instances when drug dealers plan a hit on their rivals and they often find them in the company of other people and they shoot everyone on the scene.

“Also, there are just fewer police to police this whole area, especially since there are many shanty towns that have sprouted around the township. By international norms and standards, one police officer is supposed to police about 300 people. Here in Umlazi one police officer is allocated to more than 1,000 people due to overcrowding.”

The ANC have been campaigning heavily in Umlazi township in efforts to counter the rise in popularity of the recently formed MK party. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Unemployment

According to Statistics SA’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey released in January, the unemployment rate for university graduates between the ages of 15 and 34 was 33.6% in the first quarter of 2023.

Umlazi township has its fair share of these highly educated, young, unemployed persons.

Thabile Shange (37) holds a communications and a teaching degree, both obtained from Unisa more than five years ago. However, she has been unable to find employment. The only job she ever had was that of a teaching assistant at the local school, which lasted only a few months.

“It has been a very difficult period for me because I was looking forward to stand on my own after graduating. My parents struggled very hard to get me educated and it pains me that I cannot change this situation here at home. I cannot even buy myself cosmetics. I was planning not to vote but now I will vote because I want change,” she said.

On the bright side

Despite crime and other social challenges, Umlazi is still a vibrant place.

The township is lined with four-room matchbox houses, some with rickety shacks in the back, which the owners rent out.

There are also areas in the township, such as the BB Section, where homes are valued in the millions and whose plush homes would not be out of place in any well-to-do suburb in South Africa. Some of these luxurious homes sit side by side with tumbledown shacks.

Umlazi attracts local and international tourists despite the township’s high crime rate. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

Tourism

Umlazi is one of Durban’s major township tourist attractions.

Its proponents say the township offers a unique experience and it has a variety of establishments that have grown since 1994, partly due to the support of national, provincial and local government through the injection of funds and other technical support.

A prime example is Max’s Lifestyle, in Umlazo’s busy V Section. At weekends, luxury sedan cars and big 4x4s line the parking lot.

The story of Max Mqadi, the 54-year-old owner of Max’s Lifestyle, is one of rags to riches. He started his restaurant 25 years ago as a place where people could barbecue meat while their cars were washed outside. It is now an internationally known establishment, worth millions.

In 2016 it was named by Conde Nast Traveller magazine as one of the best 207 restaurants across the globe. Here, a bottle of Armand de Brignac Ace of Spades Champagne will set you back R15,000 and a bottle of Dom Perignon R9,500.

Mqadi’s daughter Zinhle now manages the establishment, and said they get a range of local, suburban, national and international visitors.

“We have 150 employees, both permanent and casuals. We offer anything from local cuisine to international dishes, including pasta and others,” she said.

“I’m very proud of my father. Others have ideas but are unable to execute them, [while] he has been able to persevere through ups and downs to build this establishment.”

But even Max Mqadi is not exempt from the violent crime that haunts Umlazi — in October 2021, he survived an apparent assassination attempt when he was shot at close range outside his establishment by unknown gunmen who then sped away in a vehicle. DM

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