Sorry tale of a city in pieces

Widespread looting and destruction in Pietermaritzburg could signal the death knell for a place already brought to its knees by municipal neglect and the greed of those in power.

There is something completely surreal about seeing the place you call home on fire on national television for days on end.

To see the roads you used to roam when you were younger, now the scene of a standoff between a couple of police officers and hundreds of looters oblivious to the cameras and the brazen criminality of their actions. All this mess and mayhem in a place we once proudly proclaimed home. 

Gunfire, smoke and mounting rubble on every street are becoming average. It is haunting when your little boy recognises the circling of helicopters overhead as signalling the arrival of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) – even if only to be a visual presence for a city in crisis. The sounds with which children should be familiar should not be those of chaos, confusion and conflict. In a normal society, children are encouraged to go and play. But this is far from a normal place.

3 June 2012: The start of the 2012 Comrades Marathon at the City Hall in Pietermaritzburg. The race, temporarily suspended, is run between this city and Durban. (Photograph by Anesh Debiky/ Gallo Images/ Getty Images)

It is so far from normal, in fact, that children of a similar age to the boy who knows an army helicopter by sound have been seen ransacking alongside parents and peers. Who needs education when you can trash classrooms and then burn the evidence to the ground?

Many of us grew up here, and many of us will die here. That’s the thing about a place close to your heart. Even when those who know better flee to the brighter lights and cleaner streets of Cape Town or Fourways, many who were made here, persist here, each with their own mitigating factors.

It is still supposed to be a good place to raise children, with a variety of quality schools to suit your budget. Before the traffic lights worked only when they felt like it, everything was about 10 minutes away.

It was a luxury we never knew we had.

City of chaos

But the reality checks have come thick and fast in recent years. In the midst of the pandemic that forced us to stay at home, some of us spent five days without electricity, and we just had to get on with it. We had more than 100 hours to contemplate how a place once labelled one of the best in which to live was now one of the absolute worst. The city of choice has become the city of chaos.

The persistent dereliction of municipal duty has seen Pietermaritzburg fall into decay. The result is that it has become one of the most murderous parts of the country. Human life is worth less here than almost anywhere else in South Africa, so what price could be put on buildings and businesses and schools that can’t speak up for themselves to ask their attackers to consider what they will do without them tomorrow?

This is life in the eye of a criminal tornado, helmed by government workers in an abusive relationship with power. (Don’t confuse “power” with the electricity that comes and goes on its own schedule, totally independent of the loadshedding with which the rest of the country has had to come to terms.) Power in this context is visible every four years or so, when the streets miraculously get marked and paved again, and the garbage is actually picked up. Promises of job opportunities and infrastructure seduce the masses. It’s an old trick that keeps finding fresh victims to manipulate.

2 October 2014: Members of the Pietermaritzburg Gandhi Committee lay flowers at the feet of the Mahatma Gandhi statue, which is still standing despite the recent violence. (Photograph by Jonathan Burton/ Gallo Images/ Getty Images)

This is life in the epicentre of a city without a compass, moral or otherwise. Negligence and corruption have systematically gutted its soul. Those cashing in on their frustration have looted what was left. And so the city and its creaking buildings go up in smoke, taking us ominously close to the brink of total collapse.

At times like this, people often turn to religion. Just about every city in this country has a Church Street with a quaint building that speaks to a common purpose to be better, kinder, more considerate. But in the second week of July 2021, what crumbs of consideration were left flew out the already-broken window. We watched helplessly as store after store was ripped apart. Malls that were bravely inserted into neglected areas of the city – where so many more residents could access them with ease – are now a memory.

It’s a wonder that the Mahatma Gandhi statute still stands where it does, instead of lying in the corner of a looter’s lot surrounded by random appliances. The heart bleeds for entrepreneurs who persisted long after common sense suggested they should cash up for good in this city. They stayed on, desperate to do their bit for friends and families they know would support them.

Today, these investments are in tatters; a tsunami of terrorising opportunism and disregard have washed away the stoics that stood against the current. We dread to think what will be left once the clean up is complete. It started a while after similar efforts began in Howick, Ballito and parts of Durban because the people in the city of Pietermaritzburg are tired.

Hope for the hopeless

Filth is nothing new to communities that have to remind the municipality that it is supposed to pick up the trash on certain days. Looting, however, is deeply unnerving. It is a bridge too far and many young families are now wearily reconsidering the feasibility of allowing themselves to be at the mercy of the criminal elements among the rioters that hit the city.

The people of this once-proud city are exhausted. When grown children have to sleep in their mothers’ beds as fathers stand guard with whatever weapons they can find, you know you have breached human rights and moved into collective wrongs.

Circa 1938: Writer and educator Alan Paton gives a speech on racial issues in South Africa. An important street in Pietermaritzburg is named after him. (Photograph by Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

Coming from Pietermaritzburg used to be a badge of honour. It showed a grim determination. We were cut from a gritty, resistant cloth. We used to joke that Harry Gwala Stadium on Friday game night – construction only half completed but throbbing with hope and exuberance – was a perfect metaphor for the city and its people: not quite there, but finding a way to keep its head just above water while maintaining a shred of dignity. This was a city of endurance, characterised by the ultra-distance marathon that started or stopped here. But that emotional well of perseverance seems to have run as dry as the petrol stations in the area.

One of the most important roads in the city is named after author Alan Paton, who was born here. But even in the depths of his introspection while penning his famous novel, he could never have foreseen how the tragedy of broken things never mended would manifest in a supposedly democratic South Africa. His beloved city and its people have been crying for years. And it is not over yet. 

This broken place, rich in history across all cultural clusters, can barely fathom its present, let alone contemplate its future. If you happen upon a tank of unleaded hope, do send it to Alan Paton Avenue with the urgency of a Mfundisi trying to save a wretched soul from itself.

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