On 4th Avenue in western Alexandra, Johannesburg, the morning of 13 July dawned after a night of running gunfire and constant screams. And in the Sithole* household, in the upper reaches of one of the township’s iconic yards, it was the first morning without bread.
The day before, and just more than a year after he had done the same to enforce South Africa’s first Covid-19 lockdown, President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the army to put down uprisings spreading across South Africa, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. News streamed in on Busi Sithole’s WhatsApp groups of the continuing mass looting of food and goods at the nearby Pan Africa shopping centre.
But still, bread remained the Sitholes’ central concern.
Proceeds from the riots have quickly led to new markets being conducted on WhatsApp groups, with people who have taken more than they need advertising the goods for sale. With the normally bustling spaza stores in nearby streets closed by the riots and feeling increasingly panicked, it was to this market that Sithole turned for bread. And, after a few messages, it wasn’t long before four loaves, taken in the previous days, were delivered to her door. “We are shopping online,” she joked.
Turning her attention to another message on the WhatsApp group – vanilla essence was now being advertised at cost – she broke out in a syllabic giggle. “They’re baking now! I never thought it would come to online shopping.”
With bread secured, Sithole sat down to watch a media briefing by South Africa’s police and intelligence ministers with a mid-morning meal of creamy coffee, polony and vetkoek. (Both sweeter and flatter than usual, the fried dough was sold by a neighbour who had now run out of flour and also turned to WhatsApp groups to secure enough supplies to keep her small business running.)
The depiction of the continuing riots has so far been one of outright mobility. Throngs of people sprinting from burning stores to avoid the police shooting. But the image of Sithole, in blue velvet sweatpants under a purple blanket with her bare feet warming at the face of an electric heater, is a great deal more common, if under-reported. Immobility, and the people who stay home, will be at least as important to understanding the unrest that has erupted in the wake of former president Jacob Zuma’s arrest on 7 July.
If this more domestic truth of the uprisings was inadvertently pointed out on the television when Minister of Police Bheki Cele told a journalist that “if you don’t see us, [it does not mean] we are not there”, Sithole was having none of it. A focus on criminality, by both the media and political class, she said, missed “people’s deep-rooted emotions, their deep-rooted frustrations”.
Putting her coffee down and waving her hands at the television in protest, she regularly interrupted the minister in frustration: “They are looking for a scapegoat, they want to point a finger. But they won’t look at themselves and what they have done.”
The many lives of Alexandra
What “they” have done, according to Sithole, is steadily erode Alexandra residents’ visions of social and economic equity. The scales of life in the township, she explained, had slowly but steadily shifted from the tolerable to the intolerable.
It is a verdict echoed in a report just released by the Office of the Public Protector and South African Human Rights Commission, which catalogues a litany of constitutional breaches by various organs of state, including the municipal and provincial governments and the police, in their administration in the township.
The refusal of many of her neighbours to endure the resulting indignities any longer is what has fuelled their indignation and rage, said Sithole. “What is adequate to us? It comes down to what is adequate to us. We are living in yards with more than 20 families, many of them have lost their jobs. Is that not enough frustration? How is life going to be when we share everything? We share a tap. We share a toilet. Is that not enough frustration?”
A place of neither saints nor villains, but rather of their vulnerable human underbelly, Alexandra has always given something of a double life to the people who call it home. After a neighbour popped his head through her front door to ask Sithole if she needed anything from the shops, for instance, it became clear that she understood the township’s density as both its curse and salvation. “There is no way that one goes hungry in a yard full of people,” she smiled. “That is one thing I cherish about Alex, it will teach you to love each other.”
And it was no different with the riots raging outside the door behind which she had chosen to lock herself up.
First and foremost, she said, they made her feel afraid – afraid that her husband may not return from work (he is a quality controller at a Midrand food processing plant) and that the disruption of supply chains may compromise her family’s food. But her assertions of fear barely mask an irreducible solidarity. “People are acting with a ‘don’t-care’ attitude. They are acting with a courage that cannot come from one man,” she said. “How else would I behave? How else?”
Explaining the ambivalence, Sithole was serene: “It’s a human process. As a human, I can feel sad and happy at the same time.”
‘A world with no quiet’
By the time Gauteng Premier David Makhura showed up on Sithole’s television screen to confirm that arrests of rioters in Gauteng were approaching 500 and that 10 people had been trampled to death in a stampede at a Meadowlands shopping centre, neighbours had already brought news of an unconfirmed number of people being similarly killed at the Pan Africa shopping centre in their attempts to escape the police and soldiers.
“We’ve grown to live in a world with no quiet, a world without calm. I wouldn’t say it is normal, but it is something I cannot run away from,” Sithole said. She is no stranger to the states of emergency that are now being called for from various sectors to quell the uprising. After losing her mother to a police bullet in the student uprising of 1976, Sithole was in high school when the last state of emergency was declared in June 1986.
A clearly panicked Makhura went on, pleading with communities to stop looting. He said he was making significant strides in attempts to develop an inclusive economy in the province.
The premier might be hard-pressed to find a figure that would suggest the province’s economy was anything but exclusive before the looting, however. Over the past year, in more or less the same time it took for the price of a loaf of bread to increase by more than 12%, Gauteng has lost more than half a million jobs and borne witness to South Africa’s largest increase in unemployment since the onset of the pandemic, up 5.3 percentage points to 41.6%.
*All those living in the Sithole household have asked that their names be changed for this story.