Motivation behind July unrest was political — Chamber of Business

Siviwe Feketha Political reporter
Shops were looted during the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Shops were looted during the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

The Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business has questioned the use of socioeconomic inequalities as the reason behind the huge looting that took place during the July 12 unrest  in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

On Thursday, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) entered the fourth day of its national investigative hearings into the root causes of the unrests and what happened in the aftermath, with the business chamber’s CEO Melanie Veness taking the stand.

Veness argued that the unrest had been a deliberate political power game aimed at changing political power in the country, as it was filled with expletives against President Cyril Ramaphosa and in favour of former president Jacob Zuma.

“I think there is a tendency to make what happened in July largely about inequality. People that led that insurrection utilised that to their advantage, but I think the chief motivation behind the insurrection had a political role. It was too well-organised and orchestrated.

“Standing in those businesses and watching what was sprayed on those walls, the “Free Zuma” and “Ramaphosa must go back to Venda” and expletives about white monopoly capital, the rhetoric was very clear that it had a distinctly political undertone and had more to do with power than anything else,” she said.

Veness, whose chamber represents over 700 companies in the region, described how the riots and looting brought unprecedented devastation to businesses in the Midlands and Pietermaritzburg.

“I thought I was in some kind of war-zone. It did not seem real that it was a place that I frequented. It was not just about looting, it was about destroying and it was orchestrated and you could see how orchestrated it was. People disabled water sprinkling systems, pulled linings out of ceilings, brought petrol with them and poured fuel on machines and set them on fire, and spray-painted walls,” she said.

Venesse said the riots had created a trust deficit between business and the state, which would last for some time as businesses were left to fend for themselves.

She alleged that, while there were complaints of police shortages, members of the police had received instructions that they not come and stop the looting in some of the areas that were affected.

“We have been directly told by some of the police personnel that they were told to stand down and that they were not allowed to respond by their leadership,” she said.

“The looting went on for days. People sat on the side of the road on top of their looted goods and waited for transport to arrive. There was no adequate response during and after the unrest,” she said

Veness said while bigger businesses had been insured, small and medium enterprises had been either underinsured or not insured at all, which left them with losses that crippled their business operations.

“One of my members, a black businessman, it set his business back seven years. His premises were burnt and his stock destroyed. He has a fabrication business and had bought parts to manufacture machinery. Those parts were destroyed and has now gone back to work under a tree in Dambuza,” she said.   

Veness was asked by evidence leader Buang Jones on how the security companies were procured by the businesses under the chamber.

A number of witnesses have since Monday testified before the hearings how security companies, Indian businessmen and vigilantes racially profiled them, blockaded roads, shot at them, and killed some of them during the unrest even though they were not looting.

Veness replied: “We get paid by our members to represent their views. We do not govern their behaviour.”

The hearing continues. 

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