‘I am broken’: South African communities are gutted by a wave of looting, arson and loss

The family of 14-year-old Vusi Dlamini — from left, aunt Sandra Kwamba, mother Rejoice Dlamini, sister Zandile Dlamini and aunt Martha Sithole — gather days after his death during unrest in Vosloorus, Johannesburg. (Gulshan Khan for The Washington Post)

KATLEHONG, South Africa — As thousands of people pillaged Chris Hani Mall, named after the famed militant communist who led the armed struggle against apartheid, Zandile Dlamini figured she’d go watch.

To the 18-year-old, the moment felt historic: the crumbling of society that so many had long predicted here, where inequality has ballooned, fueled by corruption and neglect. The looters were the poor who had scarcely benefited from the end of White rule 27 years ago, leaving their homes in the townships that shadow Johannesburg as a wave of lawlessness swept across South Africa’s two most populous provinces this week.

Her brother Vusi, even though four years younger, felt concerned — and responsible — for her safety. He jumped on his bike and headed toward the mall, thinking he would bring her home. It was Zandile who found him instead, dead on the ground with a single gunshot to the head.

Who shot Vusi isn’t clear, but he is one of at least 212 who have died in the mayhem — killed by police or vigilantes, or crushed in stampedes as people fled law enforcement.

South Africa has deployed 10,000 soldiers in addition to its police and expects to deploy 15,000 more in coming days even as the looting has lessened.

“I did my best to make sure that my children are well taken care of, that they can dress up and look good just like other children,” said Vusi’s mother, Rejoice Dlamini, 37, who sells corn and spinach for a living. “I am broken.”

The killings, as well as the widespread destruction of small, uninsured businesses in townships, underscore the bitter irony of this wave of violence born of anger at inequality: Most of its victims are the poor and dispossessed, and many are ethnic Zulus, members of the same tribe from which former president Jacob Zuma draws his most fervent support. It was his jailing last week that set off the protests that quickly devolved into the worst unrest South Africa has seen since apartheid ended in 1994.

Zuma has faced extensive corruption allegations for years in which he is accused of so wholly selling out to bribery that state policy began to be influenced by those who paid him — a collapse in governance known as “state capture.” His jailing came after he was found in contempt of court for repeatedly refusing to participate in a sprawling inquiry into his nine years as president that ended in 2018.

But the anger and disillusionment South Africa has seen in the past week have little to do with Zuma’s arrest.

“South Africa is a country that has been dealing with a lot already, and all it needed was just a spark,” said Sello Hatang, the chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. “President Zuma became a spark of the worst kind because it was at a time when the pressure had now come to bear and many people had lost a lot more jobs.”

Unemployment, especially for the 18-to-25 age bracket, was already high before the pandemic, which is now hitting South Africa with a third wave. No other African country has been hit nearly as hard.

Youth unemployment is at a record 74 percent, according to government statistics. Hunger has risen sharply. And now businesses that employed and fed thousands of people have been ransacked or burned.

Except for a heavily protected mall, few businesses in one of Johannesburg’s oldest townships, Alexandra, were spared. Even Lillian Dassie’s preschool was looted.

“You will open this gate whether you like it or not, because after this we are coming for you,” Dassie, 60, remembered looters shouting at her as she cowered inside on July 11.

She has run Lebogang Mpho Early Learning Center for the past 30 years and has devoted her life to providing the basis for children to learn. She knows how hard and unfair life in the townships is, having lived in one her whole life.

But she said the protests of the past few days were in many ways worse than in 1976, when townships erupted in an anti-apartheid uprising.

“Back then, we knew that it was for the struggle, but for now there is absolutely no reason,” she said in an interview Thursday. A news helicopter hovered overhead.

She had repeatedly furloughed five workers from the school because of pandemic-related closures. Now with most of her students’ parents likely to have been rendered jobless by the unrest, trying to rebuild and reopen the school seems even more pointless. Where would the parents get money for fees?

Even the office of beloved local dentist Laxmidas Vallabhbhai, 73, who opened his office a year before the 1976 uprising, was destroyed. Mmule Motlhabane, a patient who is unemployed and whom Vallabhbhai treated out of kindness, said she couldn’t understand what had happened.

“I feel so upset at what took place,” Motlhabane said. “Dr. Vallabhbhai is always there for us in trying times.”

The damage from days of looting and arson is expected to run into billions of rands. KwaZulu-Natal Province already faces food and fuel shortages, a situation that some have warned could escalate into a humanitarian crisis. The price of a loaf of bread had doubled in KwaZulu-Natal since last week.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa visited KwaZulu-Natal on Friday and acknowledged that his government could have been better prepared for public anger at Zuma’s jailing to spill over, but he alleged the looting was part of a deliberate destabilization campaign. He did not offer specifics on who he thought was behind it.

“These actions are intended to cripple the economy, cause social instability and severely weaken — or even dislodge — the democratic state,” he said at a news conference. “We will identify and act against those who lit the flame, and those who spread it. We know who they are.”

One of Ramaphosa’s top deputies, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, said on Thursday that one of about a dozen suspects in the alleged campaign had been arrested while others remained under surveillance. She did not name the suspects.

Inequality and joblessness have turned South Africa into a pressure cooker. The country’s rich live in mansions surrounded by barbed wire, or in gilded, heavily guarded estates. Echoing the geography of apartheid, those neighborhoods often abut vast townships — with one providing labor to the other.

“Since 1994 the state has overseen serial failures in ensuring reparation, restitution, redistribution and prosecution,” Hatang’s Nelson Mandela Foundation said in a statement. “Inequality has spiraled. The discarded and the despairing live their lives with conspicuous consumption in full view.”

Outside the Dlamini home in Sunrise, a section of Katlehong township outside Johannesburg, women sang the kind of hymns that are sung at funerals. An aunt, Martha Sithole, offered tea and scones to neighbors coming to pay their respects to the family.

Sithole said she had tried the day before to report Vusi’s death at a local police station but was told that the backlog of cases against looters was too long and that the officers couldn’t handle any more reports. That left her and the family feeling hopeless, but Vusi’s sister seemed to be taking it the worst. She is racked by guilt.

“I recognized his feet. As I saw them, I knew it was him,” said Zandile, crying softly. “I feel so sad that he got shot while coming for me.”

Bearak reported from Nairobi. Lesley Wroughton in Cape Town contributed to this report.

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