Durban –Multiple witness statements, made at the SA Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) hearing into the causes and effects of the July unrest, have revealed that the police and political leaders were of little to no help when KwaZulu-Natal was erupting in violence and criminality.
The two witness testimonies given yesterday at the SAHRC hearing in Durban by Melanie Veness, chief executive of the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Commerce, and Palesa Phili, chief executive of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry, revealed that police in KZN did not respond properly to the riots.
Veness told the commission that police were instructed to stand down, according to her sources, and that the unrest was an orchestrated attack.
Durban and Pietermaritzburg were among the hardest hit places in the province when the looting and violence ensued, resulting in the deaths of more than 300 people and billions of rand in damages.
“I tend to speak to people like the brigadiers and captains, I have their cellphone numbers and there was no response. They had teargas but weren’t allowed to use it themselves.
“It was a while after the unrest that the premier called a meeting. I was very vocal and told them publicly that from the ground there was complicity. We were also told our local politicians were fine with the looting. They were not saying the looting was wrong. If you value the investment, you give some kind of reassurance to business and people. That still hasn’t happened.
“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. They spray painted things about Ramaphosa.
“It was traumatic and devastating to stand there and look at the young people (lying) 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,” Veness said.
Asked about the deployment of law enforcement, she said it took a long time for there to be a response.
“There were pockets of response, it certainly was not immediate.”
Veness added that businesses owned by people from all race groups were attacked.
“The fundamental belief that you have as a South African is that when somebody attacks your business or your home that there will be an adequate response from government to ensure you are protected from that.
“When there was no response, it was a horrible awakening that you are completely alone and that you aren’t going to see an adequate response.”
Phili told the panel that the Durban Chamber had been engaging with police long before the unrest occurred over the high levels of crime in Durban and its impact on the economy, but not much had been done about it.
She said so-called business forums had sprung up overnight, demanding money from business owners in exchange for protection.
“When I talk about crime, I talk about those issues and challenges that were there, but nothing has been done with it.
“Here in eThekwini we have problems with the construction mafia. Businesses have frustrations with crime before they invest in Durban. A proposal was sent through to the premier about a year and a half ago. It was approved but the challenge of getting funding arose,” Phili said.
Speaking on the July unrest, Phili said the destruction was devastating. Phili said the police were missing in action.
“The destruction that has happened to the economy, to the livelihoods of the people, if you drive around you will see the massive factories where people have lost their jobs, this destruction has long term and devastating consequences. As the Durban Chamber, it has taken us years back with our job creation project.”
Meanwhile Deputy President David Mabuza said yesterday that a panel of experts would soon table their report into the unrest that broke out in KZN and parts of Gauteng in July.
Mabuza, who was answering questions in the National Council of Provinces, said he did not want to pre-empt the findings of the report.
But the report would be able to get to the bottom of what happened in July when the violence broke out leading to the destruction of businesses and infrastructure.
President Cyril Ramaphosa had appointed a panel chaired by Professor Sandy Africa and former legal adviser to ex-President Thabo Mbeki Mojanku Gumbi.