Shelves broken, decorations ripped off the walls and empty boxes that used to carry colourful party supplies litter Thandi Johnson’s store. The devastated shop owner looks through the debris of her popular party-rental shop in Diepkloof, Soweto, for anything she might be able to salvage.
There is nothing.
“On Monday, I had the day off so my husband and I took our routine morning walk,” Johnson, 41, recalled.
“One of my staff members called about the growing unrest in the Diepkloof area, so I advised them to close shop and go home for safety reasons.”
Shortly afterwards, Johnson received another phone call, one she had dreaded: TWJ Events – named after herself, her husband Wayne and son Johnson – had been looted and destroyed amid the deadly unrest that engulfed parts of South Africa over the past week.
“I am heartbroken,” Johnson said. “The Diepkloof community has hurt me deeply. We spent 12 years building this business.”
‘I have no words’
Gunshots and petrol bombs reverberated across Kwa-Zulu Natal province following the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma in the early hours of July 8.
In the days after that, sporadic protests turned into rampant looting, growing more violent and destructive in two of Southern Africa’s biggest economic hubs – Durban and Johannesburg.
Stores were set alight, shops were looted and community members clashed with the police, in what was the worst mass violence in South Africa since the end of white minority rule in 1994.
The unrest led to more than 200 deaths – including children, elderly people and police officers – and a total of more than 2,500 people arrested.
In a statement on Friday night, the South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, announced that the destruction of property and infrastructure will cost the country billions of rand.
The chaos and the destruction were unrelenting and unselective, from large multinational corporations to struggling small businesses. The stark contrast, however, according to Steve Ledwaba, a businessman in Johannesburg’s Alexandra township whose shop was vandalised and looted in the early hours of Friday morning, is that community convenience stores may have a harder time recovering from the carnage.
“I have no words,” said the 54-year-old. “I have lost everything. I served this community, I know everyone, I help them every day.”
Ledwaba had started selling a range of perishable goods such as bread and milk to the community from the backdoor of his two-room house in 2005, before opening his own shop.
“I wake up at 3am every day to make fresh vetkoeks [fried dough bread] for those that take the train to work at 4am. I didn’t mind if someone who needed bread or pampers or even cold drink was missing R1. Now they’ve destroyed me.”
‘Planned and coordinated’
The government has deployed the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) to the areas most affected by the unrest, while Ramaphosa on Friday suggested the violence was “planned and coordinated” and said the government would not allow “anarchy and mayhem” to take hold in South Africa.
“We will not allow anarchy and mayhem to just unfold in our country,” Ramaphosa told reporters during a visit to Ethikwini municipality.
While questions linger over the root causes of the violence and riots, some believe they were bound to happen.
“The majority of the people that are looting are poor and unemployed and tired of the inequalities,” said Vuyo Zungula, an opposition MP and president of the African Transformation Movement, who described the events as a culmination of South Africa’s unaddressed economic disparities and the gross indignity faced by a majority of its historically disadvantaged Black population.
“There is a man that was killed in Tembisa while holding a loaf of bread and milk.”
Zungula said he believed that civil unrest of this nature and magnitude will continue over the next few years, unless meaningful economic reforms are introduced to benefit those who have long been marginalised.