Durbanites hustle for food and medicine amid ongoing looting

Few stores are operating, with some closed by police and others setting up WhatsApp groups for collections

13 July 2021 - 16:13
By wendy knowler AND Wendy Knowler
People queue outside a Superspar in Morningside, Durban.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu FOOD INSECURITY People queue outside a Superspar in Morningside, Durban.

Under siege by marauding gangs of looters at their workplaces and in their homes, Durbanites woke up to a new fear on Tuesday morning — running out of food and medicine.

With scores of supermarkets either completely looted or closed to avoid it, WhatsApp groups were awash with anxious queries about which stores and fuel stations were open and how long the queues were.

When word spread that a Spar in Durban North was open, long queues formed, only to witness local SAPS members compel management to close its doors.

In a widely shared WhatsApped video of the scene, the videographer is heard saying: “The police want to close down the Spar because people are not social distancing. You can loot and burn, but they want to close the Spar when people are trying to feed their community ... and paying for the goods.”

Responding, Lt-Col Willem Lombard of SAPS Durban North put out a voice note saying he had ordered the supermarkets and petrol stations in the area to be closed on Tuesday “because we are attracting elements from other areas”.

“Since the shops opened this morning we have arrested a number of people with unlicensed vehicles and firearms,” he said.

He pleaded for residents’ support “for one more day”.

“Hopefully by tomorrow things ease up.”

“I know we need food,” Lombard said, “so I’ve suggested the shop owners put up a WhatsApp group allowing consumers to place their order, and when the order is ready, you go and fetch it.”

He also suggested residents get together to share and swap food.

The Spar Group’s merchandise executive, Mike Prentice, said more than 70 Spars had been looted so far, 60 of them in KZN.

“And not just looted, destroyed: IT systems smashed, ovens and fridges ripped out ...

“There isn’t enough private security personnel to go round, so right now our owners are just focusing on the safety of their staff,” he said.

A few Spars had opened for business on Tuesday, he said, “but at this point we don’t know how many”.

With trucks currently unable to travel from supermarkets’ distribution centres, stocking the shelves of those stores which are open is going to be a massive challenge.

The manager of two Durban Spars which opened their doors on  Tuesday morning and quickly attracted very long queues begged Sunday Times Daily not to name them.

“We only have a couple of tills open at each and we can’t cope with the numbers as it is,” he said. “Plus, we don’t want to become a target.”

Nicole Bollman, DA councillor for Ward 35, which includes uMhlanga, Gateway, Prestondale, Somerset Park, La Lucia and Glenashley, said stores she’d spoken to in the area had acknowledged they had insufficient staff, so had closed.

“They have asked patrons to verify trading times via their social media,” she said.

“Bottle stores and grocery stores are most at risk.”

A Ballito supermarket is inviting residents to WhatsApp it a list of 10 essential items and then allocating a collection time, Bollman said.

Food Lovers Market’s group legal adviser Mirella Gastaldi said all the retailer’s KZN stores were closed on Tuesday.

Asked how many of its stores had been looted, neither Pick n Pay nor the Shoprite group revealed the number, but in the case of the latter, industry sources said it was at least 200.

“The safety of our customers and staff is always our first priority and, as a precaution, we have temporarily closed a number of stores in the affected areas,” said Pick n Pay chief strategy officer David North.

The Shoprite group issued a statement denouncing the criminal acts of violence, looting and damage to property.

“It puts the lives and safety of millions of South Africans at risk and brings further food security challenges in South Africa,” the supermarket chain said.

With most pharmacies in the province closed — including all those in Dis-Chem and Clicks branches — one Westville pharmacy took to WhatsApp to invite those needing urgent medication to WhatsApp their details, following which a collection point would be arranged. It urged: “Do not come to the centre!”

A pharmacist based at a pharmacy south of Durban, which had opted not to open, said hospital pharmacies may be able to help. “I don’t know how strict those pharmacists will be if people don’t have copies of their prescriptions on them, but they would probably help those needing life-saving medication,” she said.

At the weekend, Glenwood-based paramedic Garrith Jamieson, owner of ALS Paramedics, turned his ambulance service WhatsApp group “ALS Paramedics Traffic 4” into a platform for verified information about looting activity and road hazards in KZN.

His posts are now going out via 16 groups to about 3,000 people, he said.

Only he is able post information on the group. “And it’s only confirmed, first-person accounts,” Jamieson said. On Tuesday morning he posted a short list of the Durban shops and pharmacies which were open for business.

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