Petrol bombs, gunshots and anxiety — a loota continua

14 July 2021 - 10:52 By yasantha naidoo
Far from the madding crowd the sound of gunshots, smell of burning tyres and fear is larger than life.
Far from the madding crowd the sound of gunshots, smell of burning tyres and fear is larger than life.
Image: Yasantha Naidoo

A line of snaking trucks and impatient sedans around Peacevale on the N3, where police stood guard as cleanup teams poured sand over the fiery remnants of pro-Jacob Zuma protests, was the only snag to our road trip to the hinterland on Friday.

It was meant to be a weekend of memory-making with family and healing post Covid-19 pneumonia, in an isolated setting far from the madding crowd. 

The roads were a breeze and we made good time, so much so that a detour to the Estcourt correctional facility to see where the country’s most infamous inmate was residing seemed too good to miss.

Broadcast trucks lined the pavement opposite the facility cordoned off by police tape and guarded by two correctional facility vehicles. There wasn’t much happening on the street lined by panel beating shops and other small businesses. After a quick photo, we left for our temporary home.

There the majestic Giant’s Castle stood. Serene. Beatific. Solid.

A massive Band-Aid for any weary soul, it formed the perfect picturesque background for an Instagram feed.

Then protesters hit the Mooi River toll plaza torching 23 heavy motor vehicles on Friday night and the N3 Toll Concession shut down the route, ending my elder son’s plans to join us first thing on Saturday morning.

The trickle of pop-up protest action gathered momentum and played out in surreal slow motion via WhatsApps, Twitter and updates on the private security eThekwini Secure channel on walkie-talkie app Zello.

The updates and visuals kept coming throughout Saturday about the burning of debris and incidents of looting at shops and malls.

Reports of cops not responding and fire services being unable to respond without police escort. The pleas for help on repeat.

Reservoir Hills. Chatsworth. Tongaat. Isipingo.

A mix of residents, community policing forum members and private security calling for backup, reporting gun shots, giving locations of mobs of crowds, asking for help to put out fires.

Bridge City, KwaMashu. Umlazi, Mega City. Sea Cow Lake. China Mall. Reservoir Hills.

Reports of cops not responding and fire services being unable to respond without police escort. The pleas for help on repeat.

By Sunday, the slow trickle had escalated and was now a gushing, unwieldy barrage of lawlessness as hundreds of people tore down gates, windows and doors to shops in malls or retail stores and took what they wanted.

Some put their wares in trolleys, others carried as much as they could and left it in piles outside, and then went back inside to replenish stocks, while others stashed stolen goods in the boots of their cars.

During the course of the day, the looting scenes played out simultaneously in several residential suburbs without any police presence.

By Sunday afternoon, fear hung over residents as heavy and thick as the smoke from the burning tyres and debris that seared roads and will forever remind us of these dark days.

Our neighbourhood WhatsApp group was pinging about the gun shots and the explosions. Bluff Meat Supply, which has been looted earlier, had been set alight and there were explosions from there. Not too far away a chemical factory had also been set alight more explosions.

The updates kept coming.

“Isipingo under siege, please help.”

“Nothing major out here in Unit 9, except for a car on fire. Over.”

“Please please come to Lotus Road. They have set houses on fire,” a woman whispers as if the rogue elements could hear her make the distress call.

“Can we have an escort for an essential worker who needs to go to hospital,” asks another. “Any members available to assist in that area?”

At 8pm President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to the nation, extending our lockdown regulations for another two weeks, condemning the violence in KZN and Gauteng and urging criminals to desist or face the rule of law.

The WhatsApp group beeps repeatedly. “Was that an explosion?” “I can hear gunfire. Did anyone else hear that too?”

WhatsApp statuses show that, like me, sleep is eluding many of my friends, family and contacts who all update their social media with visuals of torn SA flags, people crying, 'pray for KZN' and 'pray for SA', at about 3am. 

I video call my son for possibly the sixth time of the day scanning his face.

“Yes, I heard the gunshots.”

My anxiety is spooking him even more.

The Zello channel is incessant and Sunday turns into Monday as the voices desperate, frustrated and exhausted continue with sit reps, back-up calls and more bad news. 

Exhausted CPF members and private security companies have set up rosters and teams to give members a break, because now the protesters have changed tack and are going into residential complexes and private homes. Private citizens have joined them to safeguard their families.

Residents are fed up and starting to fight back. The visuals and videos are being forwarded many times residents set up barriers, catching looters and protesters who are stealing from homes. In some instances the anger and frustration turns ugly and the videos record the racist outbursts, which point to another looming disaster.

WhatsApp statuses show that, like me, sleep is eluding many of my friends, family and contacts who all update their social media with visuals of torn SA flags, people crying, “pray for KZN” and “pray for SA”, at about 3am. 

Some engage. “It’s surreal.” “It’s like living in a movie.”

But there’s anger at the police, the minister of defence and at the president. “Where is the army? What does he mean we aren’t at war? Has he been here? Does he know how we are living in fear? The gunfire, the explosion is he going through what we are going through? We are locked in on our homes. We can’t move?”

The work day starts and the team kicks into action.

Isipingo is still burning. Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg has gone up in flames. Springfield Value Centre has been raided and thousands of people walk in and out of the Makro carrying whatever they can.

My family and I are stranded in the mountains because the N3 is closed and the alternative routes are not safe for travel yet.

Truth be told, this is truly the centre of serenity we really couldn't have asked to be in a better place at a time like this. The resort owners have extended our stay at the house because this is a time of crisis, but my heartbeat is in the midst of the madness and I wish for the thousandth time our son was with us. 

I look at the mountain, grateful for its protection and strength and start typing about the anarchy at home.

A loota continua.

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