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July Unrest: Businesses in KZN are still picking up the pieces a year after unrest

Published Jul 8, 2022

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It has been a year since the July 2021 unrest brought on the catastrophic damage to businesses through the looting of property, product and much more in the province of KwaZulu-Natal.

The physical damage to some shopping centres, stores and infrastructure still remains bare for all to see like remnants of a war. So does the unseen mental damage to business owners, their staff and all those who witnessed hoards of people smash through shops and malls, grabbing whatever they could and cleaning out their places of work. And in some instances, the buildings burnt to the ground.

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A year later, the state of the business economy is testament of the damage that this devastating unlawful act caused.

While many businesses are still trying to recover, many people are still without jobs, mourning their lost loved ones, and the townships and rural communities are feeling the pinch without the local businesses making their life a little simpler.

The unrest was truly shattering and caused billions of rand worth of damage.

A survey conducted by the city of eThekwini with the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s assistance revealed the total value of lost sales and stock was about R40 billion, the value of damage to property was R15bn, and the value of lost equipment and machinery was R20bn.

About 16 000 businesses were negatively impacted, placing 9 100 jobs at risk in Durban alone.

In a province that suffered three devastating blows - the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the July unrest and the recent floods - one would think it would be enough to give up, but the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Pietermaritzburg & Midlands Chamber of Business refuse to back down.

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“It is our commitment that we will not let this province go down. We will stand as the business community to get investors back into our province,” said CEO of the Durban Chamber Palesa Phili.

Echoing her sentiments, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg & Midlands Chamber Melanie Veness said that those behind the July 2021 destruction “miscalculated” and did not expect the community to stand together to rebuild what they had lost.

Veness said that while it was extremely difficult at the beginning for some business owners to wrap their heads around why communities they served religiously had turned on them, forgiveness and understanding had pushed businesses to recommit themselves to the communities.

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“I think there was a realisation by the community that they were duped during that time. Duped by whoever orchestrated these attacks. But businesses and the communities they serve are like family and have begun to rebuild and help each other.

“Yes they are battling to recover, but there have been many lessons learnt since last year, and we have faith,” Veness said.

She said the chamber was also in the process of finalising an agreement with the Msunduzi municipality to fix the ailing infrastructure in exchange for service fees.

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The Durban Chamber believes that while there are specific sectors that suffered immense consequences, all economic sectors have been hard hit by these macro-events.

“The challenges have been relentless for business owners as the challenges of Covid-19, the unrest then the floods in April and May 2022. Despite all this, we are optimistic that KwaZulu-Natal’s economy is on the road to recovery, each day we take a step closer. Based on our observation, some businesses have started rebuilding, with some already operating at full capacity while others are still in the process of rebuilding.

“Following engagements with our colleagues in the private sector, we believe business leaders are committed to rebuilding their operations in Durban. We therefore continue to work closely with government to ensure adequate support is given to the private sector to fast-track the rebuilding process,” Phili said.

She said that following the 2021 July unrest, they believe several lessons have and can be learnt, and they have been clear on the direction needed to retain investment in the city and province.

Phili said the public sector needed to ensure law enforcement took a more proactive approach in preparing for disasters, the government needed to work with the business community to ensure safety and security is a priority and resources were needed to be mobilised to support intelligence gathering.

“We continue to advocate and lobby across all spheres of business, and play an active role in bridging the gap between the public and private sector and encouraging collaboration between the two,” Phili said.

The Durban Chamber has listed five key pillars to rebuild the economy:

1. A safe and secure environment.

2. Identification of priority catalytic projects that will stimulate stability and growth quickly.

3. Rapid provision of bulk services, including planning approval.

4. Infrastructure-development budget allocation.

5. Restoration of investor confidence.

“As the chamber, we strongly believe government together with law enforcement need to take a firmer approach when tackling unlawful situations. Accountability needs to be taken and we need to see criminal unlawful behaviour being punished, prosecuted and brought to justice to avoid history to repeating itself. We need to see more proactive collaborative initiatives geared towards safety and security,” Phili added.

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