Now comes the task of rebuilding

As South Africans begin to comprehend the nuances of a tumultuous week, so too comes the renewed realisation that a common future can only be one that refuses to tolerate racism and chauvinism.

I make my living in Johannesburg and most of my life is here, but I’m from Durban. My friends, my family and my friends’ families are scattered across KwaZulu-Natal from the sites of indenture on the South Coast to Durban and elsewhere. 

I’ve barely slept or eaten in days, none of us has. 

The violent images on television and the hatred fuelled by the constant circulation of often unconfirmed and frequently terrifying videos and images on social media have been relentless.

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In my frantic conversations with those at home over these past few days – conversation amid gripping fear, shock and horror – I know this much to be true: the systematic targeting and burning of infrastructure was organised sabotage. The food riots were a spontaneous and autonomous result of deep collective desperation and hunger. The general looting that followed was opportunistic, and sometimes criminal. 

With the police absent and a complete breakdown in law and order, communities across the city barricaded themselves to form a protective shield from the armed and violent criminals who have always terrorised us. They slipped in among those who appropriated food, the opportunists who looted televisions and the saboteurs who destroyed the infrastructure that underpins food supply and jobs.

In some working-class townships, shack settlements and suburbs, people slept in shifts, fearing that violent criminals would invade and burn down their homes. In some instances, this organisation for self-defence included people across racial lines and was undertaken in a remarkable sense of solidarity. But in others, people responded to the crisis with their basest fears and this process became highly racialised and racist; there are numerous accounts of African people being denied passage through newly established checkpoints.

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Bodies are still being recovered. Some people got trampled to death in the chaos. Some died protecting their communities. Some were killed by vigilantes. Others died in ways that are not yet clear. What we do know is that violence driven by desperation, fear and racial paranoia and animosity has left families grieving and in agony. It has also pushed social tensions into dangerous territory.

People were alone in the chaos. The state was not present. As it began to subside, people were still alone but now running out of food.

A province lacking stability

KwaZulu-Natal has been unstable for a long time. The conflict between South Africans of South Asian descent and Africans in 1949 has always haunted the city. There is also the bitter history of the war between Inkatha and the United Democratic Front in the late 1980s and early 1990s. That political violence has never stopped. The enduring presence of racism among South Africans of South Asian descent cannot be denied. The existence of forms of African chauvinism cannot be denied either. It must be remembered that while most citizens of South Asian descent were impoverished and working class up until the 1980s, colonial logic saw them as an “intermediate race” and today they suffer far less than Africans from the economic devastation that festers across our country.

The best of us have always worked to overcome, build and hold on to a vision of safety, respect and justice for all. The worst of us have sought to cynically exploit these wounds, and the anger and fear they have engendered.

The forces working to sabotage infrastructure and exploit a social and economic crisis for anti-democratic ends are acutely aware of these wounds, fears and tensions. They actively capitalised on them.

14 July 2021: Volunteers clean the streets of central Durban after shops, businesses and infrastructure were damaged during five nights of violence. (Photographs by Rajesh Jantilal)

We know this much:

  • Impoverished people are starving, and have been starving for a long time. The social relief of distress and top-up grants, small as they may have been, were the difference between starvation and the possibility of one meal a day. Halting them created a deep sense of abandonment.
  • The brazen and wholesale looting of the state by the political class, with the revelations about Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize being the final straw, created a deep sense of cynicism about the social order in the country.  
  • Relationships between African communities and those of South Asian descent have been tested since the horrors of the 1949 riots. The progress made in struggle has often been squandered. Both communities have failed to effectively confront the chauvinists in their midst. The crude rhetoric of EFF leader Julius Malema and others, rhetoric that is swiftly being normalised, has left South Asian descendants feeling increasingly excluded from the nation, feeling that they no longer belong and questioning their future. At the same time many African people are pained and angered by the casual and crude racism of some of these people. 
  • Violent crimes terrify us all. We all feel unprotected, and we all feel frightened.
  • Covid-19 has left everyone in the country feeling shattered and vulnerable to varying degrees.

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KwaZulu-Natal, with its balmy tropical weather, rolling green hills, distinctive food and music is a place that its people love, a place where there is much conviviality and warmth. But there are also the wounds of the past; mass impoverishment, unemployment and hunger; a huge heroin epidemic; widespread corruption; routine violent crime; and a cynical and opportunistic political class. Aside from some forms of grassroots organising the progressive leadership that was offered in the past is now entirely absent. There is no sense of the collective possibility of a better future.

From the ashes

This week everything exploded. Large parts of Durban have been razed. Racism and chauvinism have been on open display. Huge numbers of scarce and valuable jobs have been lost to flames.

But as the fires turn to ash, a better side of our people is emerging, more encouraging stories are being told. Points of commonality are being affirmed.

A distinction is being drawn between the food riots, driven by desperation, and the carefully targeted attacks on infrastructure. Stories are being told of the decency and courage of spaza shop owners, who protected the shops of migrants amid the chaos. There is a recognition that we all fear the endemic violent criminality, that we all need food. New initiatives are springing up, bringing people together in a humane response to the upheaval, to deal with an aftermath that looks and feels like a war zone.

14 July 2021: Springfield at the height of the riots.

But as people from the shacks, the townships and the suburbs sweep the ash away and clear the debris, everyone knows that when their world was turned upside down, nobody in authority came to help. Their neighbours did. When the food began to run out, nobody in authority provided emergency supplies. Their neighbours did.

The army has finally arrived to relieve the pressure on citizens to protect themselves. Now that people are not in immediate danger, messages of assistance are streaming in on community WhatApp groups: “With the grace of God, and the help of many organisations as well as individuals who have seen our plight, we have secured a range of baby formulas, diapers and baby food. Whether you are wealthy or not, if you’d like to pay or donate or not, it does not matter, your baby needs food and we are here to help.”

Muslim organisations have provided the most effective immediate relief, supplying bread and milk to all for free. Phone numbers are being shared to report those who exploit the crisis by raising their prices. Some sort of leadership is emerging in the community of those of South Asian descent and, in at least some instances, racists are being actively confronted and isolated. Some are working to dismiss fake news, shun the racists spewing hate in community WhatsApp groups and call for the solidarity with impoverished African communities, not revenge. 

The largest popular organisation in the city, shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo, has begun to build for solidarity and a just peace. People in Gauteng are rallying to send urgent aid to the people of KwaZulu-Natal and those in affected parts of their own province.

16 July 2021: A woman sweeps the street in front of spray-painted slogans on the windows of a shop in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. (Photograph by Simon McBride)

The people of KwaZulu-Natal cannot rely on politicians who are corrupt, cynical and entirely without vision to rebuild their world. They can only rely on each other. 

We need to build a society that understands we have a common future, that we need to refuse to tolerate racism and chauvinism, that people need to feel safe on the streets and in their homes and that, more than anything, places social solidarity and the need to work together to build a just future at the heart of how we understand recovery.

We all deserve a good night’s rest. We are exhausted.

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