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Civil Unrest: How the UPL warehouse burnt down on July 12

Published Nov 3, 2021

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JAPHET NCUBE

ON THE morning of Monday, July 12, most people and businesses in KwaZulu-Natal started the day feeling anxious and fearful. Threats of violent unrest, seemingly linked to the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma, had been percolating for weeks, finally materialising on July 9.

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What followed was unprecedented looting, violence and unrest. Trucks were burnt. The N3 was blocked, and the Mooi River Toll Plaza was closed for part of the weekend. Looting had started in places and was spreading. The Durban CBD was being shut down and barricaded. Violence was spreading fast, and there were increasing attacks on warehouses and other facilities after it had become clear that the SAPS were completely overwhelmed and underprepared for the unprecedented catastrophic breakdown of the rule of law that was unfolding.

Unfortunately, the security staff at the UPL site were unable to prevent the attack on the warehouse. The private security guards there were intimidated by the looters, and fled. During the course of July 12, UPL repeatedly contacted the SAPS for assistance. While they responded to the first two attacks on the warehouse, temporarily dispersing the crowd, they then left to attend to the many other incidents of unrest.

As soon as they left, the looters returned and forcibly gained access to the premises. They began to vandalise, strip and set trucks alight and broke into the admin building, which leads into the warehouse. They stole anything of value in the building and, before disabling the CCTV cameras, they appeared to be seen gathering material to make petrol bombs.

Upon being notified that trucks had been set alight, UPL immediately contacted the fire department and the law enforcement authorities.

While UPL had an emergency strategy in place in the event of a fire breaking out at the warehouse, like any other business, that strategy was dependent on the ability to gain access to the warehouse and the timely and appropriate response of emergency and law enforcement services.

However, UPL was left unassisted. The fire services eventually attended the scene, with one truck, in the early hours of the morning of July 13. By this point, the fire was raging beyond control.

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Unfortunately, the significant amount of water used by the fire department, together with the water from the internal sprinkler system, resulted in the containment tanks that had been installed at the warehouse overflowing.

UPL has hazardous waste management company Spilltech on retainer, which was contacted immediately but was unable to respond due to the unrest situation. UPL contacted an alternative spill team, Drizit, but they could not get to the site safely until the afternoon of July 13.

On the 15th, Spilltech was finally able to join Drizit. For the past three months, both teams have worked together around the clock to mitigate the impact of the chemical spill. At any given time during the first two-and-a-half months, there were approximately 130 people working at the spill site.

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On July 13, UPL immediately started doing all it could to try to mitigate the impact of the arson attack, including notifying all government authorities, as required in terms of the National Environmental Management Act. UPL also started notifying nearby business and residential communities, through multiple channels, about the fire and the resultant chemical spill and the precautionary measures they should take. An environmental expert was appointed by UPL and tasked with urgently putting together a team of independent specialists to assess the environmental damage and recommend the way forward.

UPL is committed to doing everything that it can to address the impact of these unfortunate events, including working with surrounding communities, civil society and government in its continued clean-up and rehabilitation efforts.

Japhet Ncube is the spokesperson for UPL South Africa

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