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Politicians and police left us for dead, Commerce Chamber CEO tells SAHRC of July riots

Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg on fire during unrest. Picture: Screen grab.

Brookside Mall in Pietermaritzburg on fire during unrest. Picture: Screen grab.

Published Nov 18, 2021


DURBAN - Police officials and politicians in the KwaZulu-Natal province had allegedly left businesses and citizens to fend for themselves during the violent riots and mass looting in July, says chief executive of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce, Melanie Veness.

Veness was testifying before the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) on Thursday, the fourth day of the commission's hearing at the Gateway Hotel in Durban.

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She gave the panel insight into a report compiled by the chamber as well as her experience of what happened in July, when chaos had consumed KZN and parts of Gauteng.

She said reports that came in from business owners and other sources at the time of the unrest, revealed that some of the politicians in the province supported the mass looting. She said she had tried calling Premier Sihle Zikalala but he had not responded.

She received information from police officials in Pietermaritzburg that the police were asked to stand down and not respond to the so-called insurrection.

Veness believed that the unrest was an orchestrated hit because a similar modus operandi was used by all those involved, who disarmed sprinkler systems at the business premises, removed ceiling lines and burnt structures down before spray painting politically derogatory slurs about president Cyril Ramaphosa and praises for former president Jacob Zuma.

She said the true extent of damages, both from a business perspective and societal perspective, was devastating, specifically referring to the dead bodies of young people that had been strewn on Barnsley Road in the CBD.

“We did an assessment. Small businesses were affected right until the retailers and shopping centres. It meant contacting individual businesses. To listen to what people went through, it looked like some kind of war zone. It was a place that I visited often, to see the destruction, everything was destroyed.

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“The hardest fact is that it was orchestrated. To see how people damaged water systems, pulled the line out of the ceilings, burnt the place. It was heartbreaking.

“It was traumatic and devastating to stand there and look at the young people on the ground, thinking that is someone's son. It could have been my son and they never went home. None of it was worth the lives that were lost.

“It was orchestrated because the people that went ahead operated with a structural plan. They deactivated the sprinkler people. Burnt it down and spray painted with politician names. It came back from businesses and people said that it was planned in advance.

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“Some of the people on the shop floor were aware of the planning. Some staff members, according to the owners, were aware of the looting to come. It was against the walls of businesses, it was on their vehicles. They wrote ‘Zuma is the best president’, ‘Fuck all white people’, ‘Free Zuma, ‘fuck white minority’ and ‘Ramaphosa must go back to ‘Venda’,” Veness said.

She said the support, after the unrest, shown by government departments was little to none.

President Cyril Ramaphosa called the alleged insurrection a “deliberate attack on democracy” in the country and also admitted that the government and its security cluster was too slow to act and was not adequately prepared for the event, which claimed more than 200 lives.

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“Fellow South Africans, as this government, we must acknowledge that we were poorly prepared for an orchestrated campaign of public violence, destruction and sabotage of this nature. While we commend the brave actions of our security forces on the ground, we must admit that we did not have the capabilities and plans in place to respond swiftly and decisively.

“Our police were faced with a difficult situation and exercised commendable restraint to prevent any loss of life or further escalation,” the president said.

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