Melanie Veness: July riots created huge trust deficit in PMB – act against perpetrators or forget job-creating investment

KZN’s capital Pietermaritzburg was turned into a war zone during the July riots, with local businesses (and citizens) abandoned by SA’s deliberately absent security forces. Melanie Veness, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Business Chamber, spoke out powerfully at the time, condemning the behaviour of the local SAPS and confined-to-barracks Defence Force. She is refusing to allow revisionists to now gloss over the disaster, warning that without retribution, a repeat is probable. In this podcast, Veness urges the politicians to speak up and demand consequences for the perpetrators, without which, she says, it will be impossible for the city to overcome its trust deficit with business. Until that is addressed, KZN’s capital will not be able to retain many local businesses, much less attract investment from new arrivals. – Alec Hogg

Melanie Veness on the Human Rights Commission to probe July unrest

It’s a human rights commission, I hope that they’ll use the information they gather to take some action because I think this collective known responsibility is totally unacceptable. It wasn’t a little economic glitch, it was a total and utter nightmare. We’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again and those who were complicit in it, must face the full might of the law.  

On whether the Human Rights Commission have enough power to punish offenders in July riots

If there’s a case, they don’t hesitate to take action in the interests of human rights. That’s evident in the action they took against our municipality regarding our landfill site. They took that matter to court to ensure something is done and that there is some sort of compliance. So, I’ve been impressed with the action they have taken. 

On the inadequate response from SAPS during the unrest

I got invited to testify and it was a difficult engagement in the sense that I had to revisit all of that in my mind again and had to say some things that I’m sure were probably not well received by many people in government services. But it’s the truth. I have a mandate for my members and I needed to tell the truth. The truth was we found ourselves completely and utterly alone at the time. There was very, very little response in the first couple of days from SAPS. We tried to reach people we work with on a regular basis but couldn’t reach [those] people. You’ve subsequently heard how the KZN police commissioner went on paternity leave in the middle of it. We were unable to get help on the ground, so we battled for a couple of days completely on our own. That is unacceptable. I see subsequently, there was some testimony to say there wasn’t much co-operation from the KZN SAPS side when national came down. So, there has got to be action taken. It’s completely inexcusable that in a crisis like this, we find ourselves all alone. 

On the South African National Defense Force not being supported by KZN local police

I saw an interview with the former minister of defense saying when the army arrived here, they battled to get cooperation and information about what was happening on the ground. We were crying out for the army to come and help us for days on end, begging for them to come. And when they arrived, you would have thought we would have been waiting with open arms to deploy them to the ground. It took so long to get people on the ground. It was so disturbing. It might have felt longer than it was because we were in the midst of it, but it was definitely days before we saw anything on the ground. At the end of the day, Maritzburg, I think, got 120 soldiers and they were deployed to protect government infrastructure. It’s not as if they were deployed on the ground to help the private sector.  

The community stood alongside each other and barricaded the path to their local supermarkets and things. Private security and the community did that. SAPS came in a couple of days later. Our municipal security started having meetings probably on the third day, but in the beginning you couldn’t raise anybody. It’s not as if we don’t speak to people on a regular basis. I mean, I speak to the brigadiers, I know who they are in charge of the various police stations locally because when we have crime unfolding, we phone them. I have their cellphone numbers. We weren’t able to get a response. 

On whether businesses affected by the riots will reopen

There are a number of businesses that haven’t [reopened]. There has been no movement and I think they’re still waiting for insurance payouts. Some I understand, like the Edendale Mall will build a smaller version. Others have mitigated their risks, so they’ve put in some of the lines of their business and moved other operations elsewhere. Some have rebuilt, others that will rebuild will look to rebuild elsewhere in town. You’ll find that areas like Edendale that were particularly badly affected, those businesses will relocate elsewhere in the city, which means all those small businesses that relied on their foot traffic for large business in the area, will suffer. So that’s the issue. Some will rebuild, like Brookside Mall; they will rebuild Checkers. They’ve got a tenant committed to that. But in Edendale it’s not going to happen. As you drive past, you can still see a lot of the destruction.  

On whether property owners have since been affected by the shutting down of business post-July unrest

It hasn’t yet. We haven’t seen any massive change to the property market yet. On the commercial side, the commercial agents are saying that some of their rentals, they are stepping back. Where they’ve got to do renewals, they’re not getting increases; they’re actually stepping back. There is a move for businesses out of the centre of town to the neighbouring suburbs where I’m assuming they feel it is safer. 

Our town centre is a bomb. I don’t know how we’ll ever get that resurrected again. We are going to try to work with the city to do some work in the very centre of town to start seeing whether we can attract people back there. But I don’t think you’re going to see the kind of confidence we really need, to see the reinvestment in Pietermaritzburg unless we do what I ask the politicians to do. And that is to stand with me and say they think what happened in July is totally and utterly unacceptable. That they welcome any investment in the city that brings jobs and economic growth and that anybody who was complicit must face the full might of the law. To this day, that hasn’t happened. 

I don’t know how you inspire confidence, reinspire the businesses that were invested here, to start off with. Give them some sense that if this had to happen again, they wouldn’t be all alone. It’s also [about] dealing with the trust deficit. There is a massive trust deficit and understandably so because we have people who work in our factories and on our shop floors, and the feedback that has come back is very disturbing. It’s things like our politicians. Some of them were complicit, so they cannot stand up and say the looting was wrong.

At the time in the community, while they were saying one thing to us; they were saying something else to the community. So, publicly there needs to be a stand and a statement about this. What do we, as the government of this region, believe about what happened in July? If it ever had to happen again, do we have a suitable response in place and what would we do to mitigate it. And how does the government feel about the investment that currently is in the city, because some of the stuff that was sprayed all over those walls makes people feel like their investment isn’t welcome and that’s awful. 

On whether the voting in Pietermaritzburg was reflective of what happened in July

There was a massive reaction from the public. The ANC came in just under 50%, which for this area is absolutely unheard of. We have the same mayor back again and probably a more balanced counsel than we have had in the past in terms of our voice. We are under administration for the second time in 10 years. So, we just hope that wake-up call at the polls will see everybody pulling together to get our city right. People who live here are passionate about our city, we love Pietermaritzburg, we love KwaZulu-Natal. We are proud to be the capital, but a capital shouldn’t look like this. A capital should be a reflection of the whole province. We are going to have to work very hard, and we are going to have to work together if we want to see things change. 

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