After havoc, Umzinto community begins to rebuild

People in KwaZulu-Natal’s impoverished south coast towns were left reeling after the devastation of the riots, but they are hoping to forge a new, collective way forward.

“We may see ourselves as divided, but we aren’t as far apart as we think,” says Shaun Stephen, a quiet, considered man talking about the rebuilding initiative in Umzinto. About an hour south of Durban and 12kms inland from the seaside town of Scottburgh, Umzinto was almost destroyed in the recent riots.

“The progress has been fantastic because the need to recover is so urgent. We have organised diligently and stood together. It is amazing to see how fast the town is on the way up again.”

When the riots broke out, Stephen, a businessman who grew up in Umzinto, rushed back from Johannesburg to the trading village he calls home. To outsiders, Umzinto is probably not worth the visit. It’s not picturesque by any stretch of the imagination. It consists of little more than a new strip mall and a main street jam-packed with tatty retail stores, a post office, some government offices and a few schools. 

29 August 2021: Umzinto businessman Shaun Stephen surveys the damage.

Perched atop a hill overlooking the town is a historic Catholic church and on the steep, twisting road descending past the graveyard, you catch glimpses through the headstones of a shack settlement and a taxi rank.

While it might not look like much, Umzinto has a long history as a rural economic artery serving outlying towns including Mandawe, Dududu, Esperanza and Sezela as well as those too impoverished to shop in Scottburgh. More than 150 000 people rely on the town.

Opposition member of parliament Narend Singh says outsiders might not appreciate the economic significance of south coast towns like Umzinto or how long it would take them to recover from the damage.

‘I don’t know how I will recover’

Umzinto was devastated in the riots. Residents there and in nearby Umkomaas say outliers came first with spray paint and matches. They robbed automatic teller machines, eulogised Jacob Zuma with graffiti and lit fires. These actions sparked general looting.

“This was not random,” says Stephen. “It was the same modus operandi in towns all the way from Highflats down to Umzinto, but Umzinto was particularly badly affected.” 

“Fuck the police” and “Zuma” was spray painted in black on shops near the Umkomaas taxi rank, close to where Asif Razar ran a general dealer before it was gutted. “Fifteen years of my hard work is gone,” Razar says. “But I must carry on. I have to pay my rent. I have to feed my wife and two children. We have no insurance, but we help each other.” 

29 August 2021: Trader Asif Razar set up shop on the pavement after his shop was burnt down.

Fakir Amin is a Pakistani migrant who has called Umzinto home since 2003 and ran a cellphone shop that was destroyed. “It’s horrible. I don’t know how the leadership of this country will tackle this. I don’t know how I will recover.” Like Razar, Amin started trading again in the smouldering embers of his shop. 

Reverend Cosmos Mzizi, Umzinto’s resident Catholic priest, joined an interfaith committee to help rebuild Umzinto. “It is going to take a long time to rebuild this town, but I’ve seen people come in from all over to clean up because they need the town. People are poor, but they are also outraged and embarrassed by the looting and destruction.” Mzizi says the impact was profound. Businesses without cash flow and stock were looking to insurance companies but were unsure if they would be helped. While the rebuild is underway for many, Mzizi says some will not recover. “People are distraught. It is really sad. For them it is economic collapse.”

29 August 2021: Most Umzinto shoppers are from outlying rural areas. They rely on the town for cheaper supplies than they can get from bigger coastal towns.

Migrant and trader Yugie Yu and his brother John watched in horror as their clothing store burnt to the ground. They built up their business over 15 years and saw it reduced to ashes in a matter of hours. Stock worth R5 million was destroyed.

“Every night I can’t sleep,” says Yugie Yu, whose family had to be taken in by good Samaritans because their flat adjoining their shop was also razed. “Everyone was so scared. There was no security and we had to run and hide. Now there is not much and people have to pay higher prices or drive far to shop.”

Two days after his store was destroyed by looters, octogenarian Mohamed Kadwa was armed with a trowel, rebuilding. “I’m an old man. I’ve lived here my whole life and I thought I had seen it all until this.” He cannot understand what happened. “There’s no tension in this town. It’s too small for conflict. People have grown up together. We have to carry on. What else are we going to do?”

Working together

While Kadwa was rebuilding, up the road five youngsters stood guard outside the partially destroyed new mall that is the toast of the town. Justin Trion, Tino Chindowe, Lindo Ngcobo, Brian Bhengu and Andile Mtolo are all in their 20s and most are studying outside Umzinto. 

They were disgusted by the mayhem and echoed Mzizi’s sentiments that locals were ashamed that this happened in their town. They are convinced outsiders instigated the riots.

“Of course it was planned,” says Chindowe. “People got messages before. I understand people without food will steal. But why burn? Now we can only buy a few things or we travel to Scottburgh and that is expensive.”

The riots and ruin have deeply affected their families, the men say. “Our parents are stressed,” Trion says, “but we all came to town to help clean up.” 

“Yes,” Chindowe chimes in, “we cleaned up with people we never really knew, so it brought us together and it gives us some hope. The economy of this town is critical.”

29 August 2021: Umzinto resident Mohamed Kadwa says he has lived there his entire life and never witnessed such destruction.

Stephen says many Umzinto locals are fifth-generation traders and wholly invested in the town’s recovery and protection. Before the riots, “well-dressed strangers driving smart cars” were spotted mingling with known criminals, something unlikely to happen again without someone sounding the alarm.

Stephen says the unity forged in the rebuild is heartening but not extraordinary. “The town is historically typical of most small South African towns. There is a hangover of racial separation and cultural differences, but it’s small so the divide isn’t pronounced. There is a strong religious element and commitment to charity. People know one another. They have to work together. The town is in their DNA. 

“There are racists and an ignorant few, but the way people got over the carnage was a really concerted effort. It brought people closer, some because they want to guard against the threat of this happening again. Others want to engage around how we improve services. To make it work, we need to be a collective.

29 August 2021: Umzinto residents say people from outside the community sprayed graffiti, set fire to buildings and fled. 

“The community and various aid organisations, individuals, municipality officials, interfaith groups and the alumni of Umzinto have expedited relief aid in the form of food, medical and sanitary aid. Everyone responded effectively to help the poor and unemployed. Everyone matters, every contribution helps, everyone benefits when we work together.”

“People here are committed,” Mzizi says. “We build on that spirit. We’re forced together by this. We’re getting to know one another better and that erodes suspicion. I’m hopeful.”

Singh welcomed the interaction between residents. “I wish such dialogue had taken place before the unrest, but better late than never. The area of Umzinto, within Umdoni Municipality, has deteriorated tremendously in terms of upkeep of infrastructure … It will take a concerted effort by the municipality and the confidence of the business people to restore it to some semblance of normalcy.”

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