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About 200 Durban North pensioners were held hostage when 12 armed men fled with money from the pension payout point.
An elderly couple from Durban North, who asked to remain anonymous, said the community hall in Greenwood Park had no visible security guards for the past two months.
They said it took police about 45 minutes to arrive at the scene on Monday where robbers took between 10 and 15 minutes to flee with money intended for pensions and grants.
The police station is about 100m away from the community hall.
The couple said the robbers were sitting among the pensioners in the queue and did not wear masks, except for one who hid his face by wearing a hooded jacket.
The payouts had been delayed and while the elderly voiced their frustration, four men suddenly stood up.
“One of them pointed a gun at a lady’s back,” said the 69-year-old man.
“Then there was pandemonium in the room with people ducking for cover. I hid behind a pillar and heard the men order others to the floor,” he said.
The witness said the men walked around asking for cellphones and smashed one on the floor when a woman was found texting. She was pushed to the ground, while the men filled bags with the payout money.
“It really felt like a movie, they didn’t hurt anyone or fire a single gunshot because no one really made a lot of noise. We were all stunned because we never expected this to happen,” said the man.
His wife felt this could have been avoided had the smartcard system been rolled out quicker. “What worries me is that we have little protection. Even if we are told to return tomorrow for our money, we are still targets because there are many of us packed in one room waiting for one thing, money,” said the woman.
She suggested that the smartcard would be a far safer option for pensioners.
Local councillor Heinz de Boer said he had raised the issue of security with the police after people had complained to him about “suspicious” characters milling around the hall.
He said the Buxton Road Community Hall was chosen because it was the most convenient location since the Post Office could no longer facilitate payouts. He could not confirm the amount stolen, but said it was several hundred thousands. “It is clear that pension payouts cannot continue there until police intervene and provide additional security,” he said.
De Boer, however, said the smartcard system was also prone to criminal activity because armoured cars were also targeted.
Captain Thulani Zwane, police spokesman, confirmed a case of robbery had been opened and no arrests had been made.