An army vehicle patrols central Durban, where looters plundered shops. Picture: SOWETAN/SANDILE NDLOVU
An army vehicle patrols central Durban, where looters plundered shops. Picture: SOWETAN/SANDILE NDLOVU

As the police top brass landed in KwaZulu-Natal on Thursday to quell rising tensions and return a semblance of calm to the region with army troop reinforcements, community leaders have warned of a humanitarian crisis facing the region.

The situation in the province has in some cases reached breaking point, leading to panic buying of the last remaining food and medicine items, as well as fuel at the pumps.

By Thursday, the death toll in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng had risen to 117 — 91 and 26 respectively —  with the number of arrests in the former rising to 1,478. Among those arrested was one of the suspected instigators on the list of 12 considered to be one of the architects of the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.

Business leaders rallied together in emergency sessions aimed at restarting supply chains as quickly as possible. Business chambers in the region met with dairy producers, wholesalers, manufacturers and retailers to pave the way for transporting goods under watchful security to secure collection points in the coming days.

Efforts were also made to press the urgency of the region’s economic woes to the presidency and key sector ministers in an effort to reopen the main arterial routes into the province.

Police minister Bheki Cele, who undertook an intense fact-finding mission in hotspots and met residents in Phoenix, appeared more comfortable and reassuring. Addressing the media in Phoenix, outside Durban, where 20 people have died in conflict between Indian and African communities, he said he had held talks with both communities and had set up a joint committee to address the tensions. He also launched “operation keep a receipt” aimed at those without receipts for goods in their possession.

Cele has shot down claims that the conflict was just about race, saying criminals had hijacked the looting and violence. Community leaders welcomed Cele’s intervention. A leader, Pastor Mervin Reddy, called for peace while acknowledging that looting had driven some residents to vigilantism.

“We have vigilantism that came up in Phoenix because people were not given proper leadership. Innocent lives were lost and I am bearing witness to that. African lives were lost because they were walking into Phoenix. Indian lives were lost,” Reddy said.

By midmorning on Thursday, with no easy recovery in sight and more than R20bn of losses in the riots, stories of intolerable hunger and destitution emerged. The destitute in poorer communities and frail-care facilities and clinics reached out to established organisations and local communities for help.  

And as dazed Durban residents struggled to come to terms with the devastation around them, countless volunteers spontaneously came forward to clean up the debris and deliver emergency food supplies to those in need, bringing hope.

Resident Cassim Cassim described the plight of some of his former staff: “My ex-staff texted me. She and her baby are hungry. No food. I offered to EFT [send her cash], but she can’t get the money. There are no shops to buy from.” He said another former staff member, who lost her job when Covid-19 forced the closure of his business, was too afraid to visit his home in Durban. Cassim added his gardener in nearby Umlazi was equally desperate, and could not travel to the Eastern Cape as there were no taxis operating.

Experts have warned that the crisis will grow exponentially in the days and weeks ahead. Many areas of Durban and Pietermaritzburg were gridlocked on Thursday as people rushed to the few damaged supermarket outlets that were reopening, anxious to stock up on essentials before stocks ran out. Cars queued for kilometres to buy petrol, but garages rapidly ran out of petrol and only had diesel available.

Accessing medicine for children, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses is now a priority. Neighbourhood networks are pulling together to send alerts and notifications of where to get food and relief aid, as well as how to avoid hotspots and stay safe.

As the death toll in the region rises and parts of the province are still burning, humanitarian relief foundation Gift of the Givers has put its entire machinery into action to respond to the “gargantuan crisis”.

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