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Gauteng police blamed for failure to stop KZN riots from spreading

Soweto community leader warns that unrest will not be the last

A fire engulfed Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, during looting in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.
A fire engulfed Campsdrift Park, which houses Makro and China Mall, during looting in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal.
Image: Reuters/Sibonelo Zungu

Police in Gauteng had failed to follow up on and respond to reports that the vandalism, looting and riots that plagued KwaZulu-Natal in July last year were coming to Soweto and other townships.

This is according to community leaders from Soweto’s Mahlali/Baduli Housing Committee, an organisation representing backyard dwellers in the township. They testified on Thursday before the SA Human Rights Commission’s national investigative hearings into last year’s deadly unrest.

The police have already told the hearings that poor human capacity and absence of prior intelligence information around the riots had been behind the failure to prevent much of the looting from taking place, which saw shopping centres and malls being vandalised and plundered.

One leader of the committee, Tshidi Modisakwane, said there had already been information in the township and on social media networks that the looting that had taken place in KwaZulu-Natal was coming to Gauteng, including Soweto.

“In Meadowlands, we thought it was not going to happen because there is a police station. Most of the people who were accused of being behind the looting at the beginning were from the hostels and we are far from the hostels,” Madisakwane said.

Madisakwane said wanton looting plagued the area without much effort by the police to prevent people from destroying businesses.

“It shocked most of us, especially community leaders, that even shops that were close to the police station were looted,” she said.

While police minister Bheki Cele reiterated that the looting had been fuelled by plans to overthrow the government and not poverty, the community leaders said dire socioeconomic conditions in the township had seen ordinary residents seizing an opportunity to help themselves.

Another committee leader, Themba Makhubela, said it was easy to mobilise residents for unrest in the township as many remained jobless.

“Unemployment is so rife in Soweto among the youth, such that there is little difference between weekends and weekdays. They walk around the street every day, you would think it is the weekend. This is one recipe that is conducive for revolution, whether for a just or unjust cause,” Makhubela said.

He pointed out that repeated outbreaks of xenophobic violence, dating back to 2008, had been among the indicators that Soweto was vulnerable to huge social unrest.

Makhubela warned that controversial Operation Dudula, targeting illegal foreign nationals, could trigger further unrest if it was not properly addressed by the government as looting of goods and shops belonging to foreign nationals was becoming the norm.

“This is not going to be the last unrest as long as we continue not addressing the social challenges on the ground. We are sitting with a time bomb,” he said.

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