July riots have made hard lives much harder

The lives of thousands of workers in KwaZulu-Natal who were already barely surviving have been upended, either by losing their jobs or having to scramble to keep them.

It is early morning and Thulisile Ngcobo is boarding a taxi to Durban from her home in Inanda, northwest of the city. Today she feels lucky: just a few days ago, she needed two taxis to get to her temporary job in Mariannhill, on the outskirts of Pinetown, but now she is headed for the Shoprite supermarket off Umgeni Road in the city.

Usually, getting to work would have been a 10-minute walk for this cashier at Shoprite in Dube Village Mall. But that was before the shop was looted and burnt down in the riots in July, resulting in her working at whichever branch the retail chain decides. 

“I am adjusting to this process of going wherever you are sent and waiting for calls about shifts,” said Ngcobo. “If you are told to go to Umlazi you go there. [The same applies] if you are told to go to Mariannhill, Isipingo or even Phoenix. We are scared of going to work in that branch because of the tension between Black and Indian people in Phoenix. It is tough, but we go because we need porridge for our kids.”

Shoprite Holdings said in July that more than 200 of its stores across the group had been affected by the looting and vandalism in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Many staff from these stores have been incorporated into teams that move around to clean and restock the damaged shops. 

16 July 2021: Water streams from a damaged and looted Shoprite store in Durban’s West Street.

Ngcobo recalls how sombre the mood was as colleagues met and spoke of the damage that the riots caused and their fears of losing their jobs. “The looting lasted three days, but when it kicked in that I had really lost my job was when I was standing in my yard watching the smoke rising from the mall. They burnt it down when they had finished and I was angry, because I was asking myself why they didn’t leave it alone afterwards? 

“I was so heartbroken because jobs are so difficult to find. And in my home I live with my mom, who is unemployed and not well because she had a stroke. This job also helped me take care of my three children to whom I’m a single mother because their father passed on,” said Ngcobo.

Ngcobo says she has had to pay for some essentials using her mother’s pension during the time she wasn’t getting paid. “I’d find myself buying nappies with my mother’s pension. When I am working, I pay for her to see the doctor and for her medication. If she gets really ill, sometimes I pay for her transport. 

“So, as I was watching my workplace go up in smoke, I was thinking about all these things. I worried about what my future holds without a job and with a family to take care of. My mind was running – where will I get money for my kid’s uniform … [for] food, electricity. I slept for a full day and a half. I couldn’t bring myself to wake up and face what was now my reality,” Ngcobo explained.

Stuck at home

Sibonelo Dlamini, who lives in Mophela, an area in Hammarsdale, west of Durban, spends his days mostly sleeping while he is temporarily off work. He is employed at the Spar supermarket in the Hammarsdale Junction Mall, which was vandalised during the riots. When the clean-up operation was finished, he and his co-workers were told to take leave while the Spar was restocked and prepared to reopen its doors. 

“I felt stressed when I thought we wouldn’t be able to go to work and earn an income, but now I feel better because we were told we will get paid for the days we spent cleaning up, at least, and the shop will be open soon,” said Dlamini.

The riots in July have resulted in many employers sending their employees home, often without pay. In some cases, companies have asked their workers to take paid annual leave while the businesses are closed.

South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union secretary for KwaZulu-Natal Mathews Ndlovu said the union’s hands are tied with regards to unpaid leave and it is looking to the government for assistance.

19 August 2021: Mathews Ndlovu, the KwaZulu-Natal secretary of the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union, says workers are facing difficult times.

“It’s a very difficult situation that we find ourselves in as a union and we can’t blame employers because they did not plan the looting and vandalism. Also, we can’t blame or punish workers for the same reason.”

Ndlovu said Minister of Employment and Labour Thulas Nxesi visited the province on Friday 20 August, and the union hoped some resolution would arise from the visit. Nxesi went to hard-hit areas such as Umlazi and KwaMashu to inspect businesses affected by the unrest and engage with employers and workers affected by the unrest.

“It’s a difficult situation because if an employer would do that [instruct employees to take leave], we would fight them. But this time we … have to understand the side of the employer as well,” he said.

Ndlovu said the union has been working with retailers such as Makro, Pick n Pay and Shoprite “in these circumstances and companies have been cooperative, even the ones we went into the riots being at loggerheads with. There are stores that might take six to nine months to be revived – that’s the area where we find ourselves in a tight corner. There is nothing that we can do, that is why we are banking on the government intervention.”

The lengthy restoration of some retail branches leaves many workers in limbo. Ndlovu said the union is asking employers to retain as many jobs as possible, for as long as possible. “A guarantee is very important for those employees who might be sitting at home for months while waiting for their stores to open. We have got some guarantees.”

Uncertain future

Maswazi Dlamini, who worked at a clothing retailer, says she doesn’t know how she will pay her bills now that she has lost her job. “I wasn’t permanent at my job and only the permanent workers were called for the clean-up. We were told that it could take up to a year for the branch I worked at in Isipingo to be opened again,” said Dlamini.

The violent protests and looting have cost the KwaZulu-Natal economy an estimated R20 billion and 150 000 jobs could be in jeopardy, according to the Presidency. Declaring a state of disaster in the province on 29 July, Premier Sihle Zikalala said it would help accelerate the revival of economic activity and restore jobs as budgets would be reprioritised to implement repair and recovery programmes. While these plans are being hashed out, workers like Ngcobo are living with uncertainty and the difficulty of being sent around to help at different stores. 

19 August 2021: A retail worker at a Shoprite store in Durban receives stock.

“There were many of us from different branches – Mtshebheni, Dube Village Mall, Bridge City and Phoenix. We were all in Isipingo assisting with the clean-up for five to six days. Then we loaded the stock back [on the shelves] and it was opened. 

“We got split up again – some went to Chatsworth, some to Umlazi. A lot of us are in Umgeni now where they are welcoming, even though it is a tough and unusual situation. There are employees from about five branches and we are all working in that single branch. It seems heavy on our supervisors and bosses.”

Asked how she and her co-workers cope with this work situation, Ngcobo says it’s still better than being without jobs. “Despite the difficulties, we will hold on because it would be hard losing a job when things are like this in our country. We pray all will work out well so our stores can open and we can go back. Even though we were told it will take a long time, we will persevere and hold on to that hope because there is no other way.”

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