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July unrest: a year on Durban Metro police beef up capacity

Some of the businesses that were looted and burnt, still face a hard time getting back to their initial working state, such as those in Nagina, near Pinetown. Picture:Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

Some of the businesses that were looted and burnt, still face a hard time getting back to their initial working state, such as those in Nagina, near Pinetown. Picture:Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

Published Jun 28, 2022

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Durban — KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala is expected to brief the province on Sunday regarding progress made in rebuilding the economy following the July riots last year.

His spokesperson Lennox Mabaso said that with nearly a year having passed since the unrest, the premier’s office had been inundated with requests for an update on progress made by the province.

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“The premier will brief the media on Sunday,” he said.

Meanwhile, Metro police are busy implementing short-, medium- and long-term interventions to be better prepared in the event of similar scenes being played out as those witnessed in the week-long riots that began on July 9, 2021, and lasted a week.

Durban Metro police Deputy Commissioner Sibonelo Mchunu said: “We are converting almost 590 officers to become fully-fledged trained officers, who were authorised officers who had lesser powers and authority.

“Those are the people we are rushing to finish by July next year; this will help with capacity. With these numbers, we will beef up the platoon.”

The unrest had revealed severe gaps and an urgent need to improve intelligence gathering and law enforcement capacity, he said.

“Although we were seeing developments leading into a potentially disastrous situation, we never got the details of the how and the modus operandi, all things that are necessary for any crime prevention. When we were overwhelmed like that, that resulted in society outnumbering the police.”

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Mchunu said that as a result of this Metro police had made budgetary requests to capacitate the unit.

“Those interventions that we requested, although they are mid, short and long term, the short-term ones assisted in helping the metro to deal with the floods.”

Speaking about the hours put in by members during that time, Mchunu said the nature of emergency services, particularly police services, required a tough balancing act.

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“Employees are employed in terms of the Labour Relations Act but those working in emergency services are also governed by the Police Act, Emergency and Fire and Rescue legislations which supersede the other.

“The Constitution says that the supreme right to everything is the right to life. So when you need to balance the right to life and any other things including Treasury regulations and labour relations, the Constitution informs us that you will abandon these if they can’t work altogether and prioritise life-saving.”

During the floods and the riots members worked extraordinarily long hours, he said.

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“The first instance that started to overwhelm us was the Philani Mall in Umlazi. While we were dealing with it we got information that they were going to Mega City coming from Umlazi and Lamontville.

“While we were thinking about Mega City they were going into bigger malls. We had officers on duty who were supposed to terminate at 6am and we had officers who needed to start at 6pm who were disrupted by the very same situation coming from home because roads were affected.”

Mchunu said they were forced to ask workers terminating their shift not to do so without any indication as to when they would go home.

“They worked hours going into 200 in that month, others were working 22 hours a day, at the same time they needed to preserve their lives.”

As businesses, such as those at the Nagina Shopping Center, continue to rebuild in KwaZulu-Natal nearly a year after the July unrest on Sunday Premier Sihle Zikalala is expected to brief the province on progress made. Picture:Tumi Pakkies/African News Agency(ANA)

He said the Metro police were experienced in handling protests, adding that they had built the capacity of being able to end a protest, by responding to it, within six minutes and ending one within 45 minutes if it was very intense.

“We have established this standard since 2016 but in July we couldn’t because these protests were happening all at once at all given places,” he said.

Mchunu who has been a police officer for 24 years described the unrest as something that he had never seen before.

“It was not violent people, it was people in a rush to loot. It was not a life-threatening situation to officers but one where officers were tempted to use live ammunition against a crowd that is not attacking them but are attacking property.

“Police had a responsibility to protect life as well as property but can you take a life in order to save property? It is justified when a person is defending his own property? That's why I am saying that there were many instances where officers were tempted to shoot using live ammunition, but we couldn’t give those commands because the situation was that, things could have been worse.”

Mchunu said it was a case of one officer to 100 people, adding that if an officer had fired a shot, this would have had the potential of “igniting the fire”.

“The crowds were violent towards property that needed to be protected and we were outnumbered. There were points where rubber bullets ran out.”

He said they faced a debacle as officers dealing with the situation at Philani Mall and could not move to the scene at Mega City.

“It was a nightmare with the industry that was on Nandi Drive. The following day people were going to Nandi Drive and Springfield with trucks. The smaller shops, including hardware shops in townships, were cleaned out, which is what sparked the issue of Phoenix during this time.”

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