Charitable acts cross many divides in KwaZulu-Natal

What was once a point of contention became a place of help and relief for the residents of a suburb in Durban, proving that humaneness crosses boundaries – real and imagined.

While it was being built in mid-2012, a mosque in Westham Road in Malvern, Durban, made headlines when a severed pig’s head and dozens of posters of pigs were placed at the building site overnight. The incident was believed to be the work of some residents who were opposed to the presence of a mosque that would cause “noise” during calls for prayer. 

It caused a huge row and the Queensburgh Islamic Society lodged a formal complaint with the South African Human Rights Commission, saying the incident showed gross religious intolerance and was an insult to the Islamic faith. Despite resistance to the mosque, construction went ahead and it has been serving the Muslim community since 2015. 

In the past week, it was the centre of relief for people of all religions who were queuing to receive basics like bread, milk, vegetables and even warm food from its premises. By noon on Sunday 18 July, there were more than 100 people waiting. They had come from the suburbs, townships and shack settlements, all waiting patiently to get something to eat for their families.

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As the line was moving along, a queue marshall suddenly appeared and told everyone that the process would be halted briefly while the distributors, a group of Muslim men, would be going to the mosque for the midday prayer, known as Zohar. This allowed time for banter and to share experiences of the past week’s tumult. The two middle-aged gentlemen in front of me were apprehensive as we started a conversation. 

They refused to give their names, but said they live in Shallcross, a predominantly working-class neighbourhood comprising people of South Asian descent, about 5km away. Next to Shallcross is the Bottlebrush shack settlement, whose impoverished and destitute residents work at local shoe and clothing factories. 

The men said they would normally do their shopping at The Ridge@Shallcross, one of the shopping centres that was looted and gutted on the night of 11 July when rioters overpowered the police and the security guards stationed there. The owners of the mall had indicated that they would not reopen it as it had not been doing that well even before the looting happened, the two men said.

The viability of this mall has been precarious from as early as 2019 when the anchor tenant, Checkers Hyper, said it might be forced to close because it was not making enough money to be sustainable. Checkers Hyper was incentivised to stay on for a while, but the recent looting, which mostly targeted the store, has put paid to the effort to save the mall. “Now we have nowhere else to go to buy food,” said one of the men.

Far-reaching consequences

As I was waiting in line, two taxis stopped nearby and dropped off women who ran to join the line behind me. Even more people on foot joined the queue.

One of them was Nonsikelelo Shezi, a young woman who whiled the time away chatting on her cellphone. At some point she got a call from her father, it seemed, who asked how she was doing. She told him that she would send him money through bank transfers.

Shezi told me her three-year-old son was being looked after by family in Eshowe, northern KwaZulu-Natal. They all rely on her and her brother, who is working in Johannesburg, for support. The main shopping mall in Eshowe had been vandalised, looted and parts of it burnt down as part of the mayhem of the past week, and a large part of it would have to be demolished.

Shezi said she was a casual teller at Ackermans clothing retail shop at The Ridge@Shallcross mall but feared for her future. She rents a room in Malvern and would not be able to afford it without a job.

“We are waiting for our bosses to tell us what will happen to us,” she said. “Some of the companies said they will retain only their full-time staff and let go of the casuals. Now if that is the case, I will either have to move to squat with friends or relatives in informal settlements or go back home,” she said, sighing in resignation.

People missing and hurt

Behind Shezi were the women who had disembarked from the taxis. They were talking about what they had seen in the past few days of looting and chaos. They spoke of some people in their neighbourhood who were still missing and unaccounted for after they had last been seen going to join the looting spree.

One woman, who lives in a shack settlement, said some young men from her neighbourhood were walking with broken limbs and scars after they had been injured during a stampede. These youngsters had been aiming for meat and alcohol warehouses located in the Mariann Industrial Park in Pinetown. She said in her neighbourhood meat and alcohol were plentiful, but rice and maize meal were in short supply. 

After the midday prayer was done, the line started moving again. But as it snaked forward, more cars parked and more people on foot joined. 

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Four people who had been standing individually in the queue came back with the parcels they were given at the mosque. Each of them had a bag of mixed vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, gem squash and onions, a plastic bag with half a kilogram of tomatoes, a litre of milk and a loaf of bread. These were loaded into their sedan and they drove off. 

A South African Police Service vehicle with officers inside went past us patrolling, followed closely by two other vehicles carrying members of the neighbourhood watch.

As the queue moved on, the man leading the distributions announced that the milk and bread had run out. Those who were eager to get these items could wait aside and allow those who only wanted vegetables to go ahead. About five minutes later, a delivery van arrived with milk and hundreds of loaves of bread. The group of distributors quickly offloaded the vehicle before resuming dishing out parcels.

About half an hour or so later, those who were still standing in the queue were told that there were no more supplies and they should return the next day. Distress and dejection were written on the faces of many as they walked away.

Surviving on donations

Iqbal Randeree, chairperson of the Queensburgh Islamic Society, said the food handouts had begun when the Covid-19 lockdown started in March 2020. But after the riots and looting, the society upped the relief programme to cater for everyone severely affected by food shortages. The aim was “helping people to get something to eat,” he said.

“We are handing out milk, bread and vegetable parcels. We also give people warm food. This food is collected from local communities and businesses. We will continue to do this as long as there are donations,” Randeree added.

The Roman Catholic Church’s Denis Hurley Centre in central Durban has been providing bathing facilities and meals for the city’s destitute and homeless since it was opened in 2015. But according to centre head Raymond Perrier, it was forced to close on Monday 12 July. 

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“We feared that the centre might be looted. Every second shop in our streets has been looted or burnt. We couldn’t provide food for homeless people. We don’t know where the homeless got their food when we were closed,” Perrier said.

The centre resumed operations on 20 July to distribute food at 15 sites where homeless people are living after receiving three and a half tons of food from the large retail group Spar. 

The company, which operates across southern Africa, said according to early estimates 184 of its stores had been affected by the violence – about 7% of its network in the region.

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