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South Africa: A state of emergency
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South Africa: A state of emergency

Wednesday 21 July 2021

In the fortnight since former President Jacob Zuma’s arrest, the country has faced riots, looting and social fracture. Now it must try to rebuild, yet again, but in a time of Covid and economic uncertainty

A couple of weeks ago, after a 16-hour shift in the Intensive Care Unit at Durban’s Albert Luthuli Hospital, Dr Vedanthi Moodley sunk her teeth into a piece of cake to replenish her energy levels. Just a week later, after that same shift, she stood in a queue over two kilometres long in the hope of getting a loaf of bread. “It’s crazy to think about that. It’s crazy to think that, this week, we can’t get food.”

Dr Moodley has been working at the government facility for just over ten years now. Albert Luthuli Hospital is one of the larger public health facilities in the country and has five intensive care units that house 12 beds each. One of Dr Moodley’s shifts, of the many in her working week, takes place in one of those units.

“We usually have a one-to-one nurse-to-patient ratio in the ICUs. These are people’s lives on the line, there’s little room for error,” she explains. But on her shift this past Tuesday, those ICU units were cared for by one doctor, herself, and one nurse. Later on, that nurse to patient ratio rose to one nurse to every five patients. “We had a skeleton staff who couldn’t get to patients fast enough.”

To her knowledge, not a single person died at Albert Luthuli Hospital that day – well, at least not due to those specific working conditions. But a lot of them suffered. The hospital only had four units of blood left and no platelets that are used to stop patients from slowly bleeding out. “We were told that we couldn’t order any blood because the blood bank could not get out to hospitals to make deliveries,” says Dr Moodley. “Patients who were bleeding out slowly continued to do just that…”

Albert Luthuli is the second largest hospital in its province of Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN). It hosts a number of speciality units that other government hospitals in South Africa do not have. But over the past week, following an almost apocalyptic looting rampage that brought the provinces of KZN and Gauteng to a standstill, none of those units did their jobs because no one could get to work.

Looters in a vandalised mall in Vosloorus, South Africa

Roads were closed. Streets were lined with looters trying to drag around big-box items. And massive buildings and warehouses, some of them medical, burned to the ground on the sides of highways. Those who could manage to make their way to the hospital, did so under the reign of fear and terror.

The unrest was sparked by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma outside his Nkandla home on 7 July. Protesters started blockading highways, as they demanded their national hero be released. The 79-year-old Zuma was given a 15-month jail sentence after he failed to attend an inquiry into the corruption and state capture that the country suffered during his presidency.

Zuma’s twin children, his son Duduzane and daughter Duduzile, are sharing outraged messages on social media. In one video from Duduzile’s account, a handgun is aimed at standing President Cyril Ramaphosa’s campaign poster and is fired over and over again. Duduzane, for his part, released several videos imploring people to take back what is theirs. Both twins called for widespread unrest and for South Africa to be shut down. It is alleged that they will face investigations into inciting violence in the country.

With unemployment levels standing at an all-time high of 46.3 per cent among young people alone, a timebomb was already ticking. The poor and hungry started looting grocery shops and stores that sell items like refrigerators and televisions. It wasn’t long before this tipped over into anarchy proper; suddenly, the rioting was about unravelling a system and crushing an economy. Apartment blocks, shopping centres and even storage facilities were torched to the ground. Thousands upon thousands of people entered multiple factories where they could not be controlled by private security, and ran havoc as they stole machinery, smashed equipment and left the rest to burn behind them.

South Africans were left wanting after President Ramaphosa’s address to the nation on the first Monday night. Many in the country feel as though the current leadership has failed to provide decisive action and to reassure South Africans that they will be safe. 

Ramaphosa belatedly deployed 2,500 troops. Just slightly over a third more than he deployed to enforce the nationwide lockdown during the pandemic last year. Of them, the couple of hundred deployed to Johannesburg spent most of last Tuesday sitting around in a sports stadium because no one thought to issue them with vehicles so that they could be called on for assistance.

In light of this, local residents and community groups started to police their own towns. In many cases, a number of them are armed and unafraid to fire live ammunition. Even in Cape Town, where no stores have been affected by looting and citizens go about their days as normal, the weapons stores have long queues out their doors, as people purchase guns and other weapons in anticipation of something happening.

The danger of this tipping over into a race war is evidenced by the fact that white and Indian citizens are banding together to fight against the Black majority. In South Africa, this is a dangerous game but one that’s easy to play and with many eager participants. Already, in KZN, there are reports of the Indian and white communities coming together to raze informal settlements to the ground.

In any case, the degree of looting and chaos that unfolded is unprecedented. In the middle of last week, local news stations estimated that 15,000 jobs were lost as a result of the destruction in Durban’s capital city of Pietermaritzburg alone. The chainstore operator Shoprite, which serves lower-income households in the country and provides thousands of jobs, had ten per cent of their 500 stores destroyed. There is no food on shelves, not at Shoprite and not anywhere in KZN. No one knows how long these stores will take to revive and replenish, especially when the manufacturers of the food have suffered phenomenal losses as well, or have simply ceased to exist. 

And there is another terrible complication, of course: Covid-19. All of this is happening during an ongoing pandemic, in a country where only five per cent of the population has been vaccinated. “No one is considering these raids and riots as super-spreader events. There are no masks, no sanitising,” says Dr Moodley. 

During the rampage, clinics, testing centres and vaccination sites closed, and Dr. Moodley expects a massive backlog once things settle down. “The third wave of Covid is upon us, but [medical] theatres have shut their operating tables, except in emergency units. And the trauma unit is saturated with patients who have gunshot wounds or who have been harmed because of stampedes and falling during the looting.”

As always, it is the poor who will have to pay the price as South Africa is forced to rebuild again. The true tragedy is the job losses, the bleeding economy, insurance companies who have yet to confirm whether these businesses will return, and patients who cannot afford private healthcare and have no access to chronic medication nor, in some cases, even off-the-shelf painkillers. And while buildings can be insured, employment and life cannot.

The irony of destabilising a state, which is allegedly what these masses were trying to do, is that it’s the people – not the politicians – who suffer the most.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African journalist and author of Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a Brown Woman in a White South Africa