We have to declare a state of emergency now – Melanie Veness of PMCB says looting well organised

The chaos continues in KwaZulu-Natal. Now, major food shortages are expected to affect the entire country as grocery stores are looted, petrol dries up, and highways are barred. Melanie Veness, chief executive of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business, paints a grim picture of what’s happening on the ground. She believes that only by declaring a state of emergency can we hope to gain control of a dire situation. “People are saying, is the army so well camouflaged here that we can’t see them? To deploy 2,500 people to the hot spots in South Africa to try and quell this is just ludicrous. We need a show of force on the ground that is going to ensure that we can get our economy back on track.” – Claire Badenhorst 

Melanie Veness on the rioting and looting:

It’s been absolutely horrendous. I can’t even begin to describe what we’ve gone through the last few days, literally watching our businesses be looted with no help in sight and then to watch our trucks be driven off to loot other places and our businesses being set alight. It’s been horrific. Absolutely horrific.

We lost Brookside Mall. We lost Edendale Mall; Polly Shortts Mall. There were a number of different liquor storage units that were burnt and then people proceeded into the adjoining factories, so we’ve lost several factories. There’ve been also the garage storage units in some areas [that] have been looted and then set on fire. Makro was absolutely decimated and it was the most shocking thing to see because in those factories that were set on fire, there were bakkies stolen from there, and we tracked them with a tracker, and they were parked in the Makro parking lot and people were looting Makro with trolleys; taking it to their cars. Like, they were shopping. I mean, it’s absolutely astounding. Just about every store in the centre of town has been decimated. Butcheries, Game stores. I mean, we saw people, they just took their number plates off in front of the SAPS and in front of the army. They loaded up the stuff and some of them couldn’t fit it into the boots of their cars so they rearranged their looted stuff in front of everybody. It’s mind-blowing, honestly, absolutely mind-blowing.

People in Mercedes Benz’s pulling up. It’s absolutely not just poverty driven. It is just looting and it’s criminal. Honestly, it’s criminal.

On what’s really behind it:

No, you know, I mean, a week ago, we could never have imagined ourselves ever, ever being in a situation like this, and yet, today it’s our reality. You have to keep pinching yourself and saying, how did this happen? It seems so well-orchestrated. There’s certainly, to my mind, some other force behind it; it’s not just happened organically.

To me, it appears far more organised than that. You know, it seems to have things that are targeted. If you look at every day, it starts off being liquor outlets, and then it’s grocery stores, and then it’s DCs. It’s quite organised. It’s not randomly perpetrated by people. I don’t think so.

On how PMCB members are reacting to it: 

Well, I mean, it’s been amazing. Obviously, initially absolute devastation. You know, you watch your life’s work crumbling around you and it’s not only about you; it’s about all your employees. You know, how do you put it back together and how do you support them? Some of them have stayed to try and protect premises and then, you know, just been outnumbered and had to leave. So the community has pulled together in wonderful ways, and I think that’s one of the things out of tragedies like this, is that you see people stepping up to help each other and communities pulling together. So we have seen quite a lot of that, which has been very positive. It’s a close business community, so we are close and we are supportive of each other and that’s a wonderful thing.

One of the things that we’ve done, for instance, is when we’ve had people that have lost their premises and have lost their machinery and things and still have to produce to stay alive, then we’ve called for support for generators from other people, and people have stepped up to offer a generator. Where we’ve had issues with attacks on particular premises, then security’s been lent to try and help protect that. Communities have banded together to block off areas to stop the attack on particular areas like we have a few shopping centres and food stores that haven’t been hit yet. So communities have banded together to protect those from further attack because people understand that, you know, we’re now starting to face food shortages because our supermarkets have all been closed and we can’t get any stock through because the highway is closed. We [are] fast running out of petrol. So the realities on the ground are tough for everyone, and if we don’t find ways to pull together and to protect the last remaining shops that we have, then all of us are going to have no food. So it’s a necessity.

On the police not acting:

In some instances, one might say it’s because there were so many people that the police were overwhelmed but there wasn’t an effort to utilise even things like tear gas or those sorts of things. They literally watched. I saw on TV the other day somebody being interviewed in the centre of town in his full security guard uniform and another one in his SAPS uniform. So it’s been so heartbreaking.

On where we go from here: 

Well, I think the most important thing for us to do now is to stand together and to call for a state of emergency. We have to do it because we need to be able to ensure both that we can start operating businesses again in relative safety, that we can start opening up our highway to start getting food in, that we can restock and reopen our supermarkets and that we can go back to functioning. There’s no way that with our current resources we’ll be able to do that.

The army deployment here – there’s been just woefully too few people on the ground that it’s made absolutely no significant difference. People are saying, is the army so well camouflaged here that we can’t see them? Literally, to deploy 2,500 people to the hot spots in South Africa to try and quell this is just ludicrous. So we need a show of force on the ground that is going to ensure that we can get our economy back on track. And the first thing is to ensure safety and security. So we need that show of force.

We’ve done quite a lot of advocacy to ask for that to be put in place, and we’re hoping that somebody will hear our pleas because I think, you know, there’s a lot of comment about it not being necessary at this point in time. To me, that shows a complete lack of comprehension of what’s happening on the ground here. I mean, we’ve never seen the likes of anything like this.

On how declaring a state of emergency would help:

At the moment, SAPS and the army are outnumbered, so we will ensure that we have lots more people on the ground, some boots on the ground to be able to take control of the situation. And it does have a curbing of the movement of people so that people cannot create the kind of gatherings and groundswells and attack areas like they are attacking them now. There are curfews in place that have got to be respected. I mean, here, I’m fielding calls until 23:30 at night about looting at night and burning of sites. We’re in the middle of lockdown. We have a nine o’clock curfew. But there’s no action taken against people for being out of that space. So there needs to be strict control and there needs to be a show of force, and I think that’s what’s not being applied at the moment. It’s very unfair to law-abiding citizens that are really just bearing the brunt of it. We don’t want any more loss of life or anything to happen like that. What we need is a show of force that discourages that and arrest and detain people that are behaving inappropriately for our society so that people are discouraged from continuing to do this. If we allow people to continue to act with impunity, they will continue to do that. There’s very little left and we need to save what is left.

Until late last night additional sites were being targeted. And I must say that since yesterday afternoon, I’ve been working quite closely with our municipal security division and they’ve been liaising with the army and SAPS and they have responded to our requests for assistance at a number of sites, but it also gets dangerous. You know, we have refineries that get targeted and they’re full of diesel and they get targeted for the diesel, but if those get set alight, then the potential loss of life to people that live in that community is massive. So there are huge, huge risks.

It’s important for everybody’s safety that we get on top of this thing. What do we do when we run out of food? What is that going to mean for communities? What is it going to mean in terms of jobs? A lot of these places that have been burnt down, if people get paid out by their insurance company, are they going to reinvest it here? Those are the real concerns for us. Or, are they going to say we’re not starting again – and what happens to all the people that were employed in those businesses? You know, it’s terrifying.

One must also remember that there are a lot of businesses that have simply closed down for this period and that’s not sustainable into the future. We’ve got companies that are foreign-owned entities, trying to explain to your head office in America what’s happening in South Africa or to head office in Japan or Germany. That’s also, you know, how do you even explain what’s happening here? Why the loss of income? You’ve got a number of companies that have said, look, you know, I mean, if South Africa is going to be this unstable then maybe we should be looking to other areas in Africa to be able to distribute from. There are companies that are saying the north of Africa, maybe it’s safer or places like Rwanda. Isn’t it safer for us to set up in those sorts of areas?

So those are real discussions taking place right now and we’re shooting ourselves in the foot. So we need to get on top of the situation so that we can create some sort of stability for the people that are here, but also for the people that have invested in South Africa so that they can continue to have faith in us as a country. This could result in disinvestment, which we’ll never get back again and it is also a deterrent to investment. You’ve got to be seen to react and to respond to threats in the environment of this magnitude.

On how businesses will suffer: 

Small businesses are the ones that are really going to suffer. You know, I just look at some of the chaps that have gone about just really working hard to establish a place. I think of a chap that owns a business called Empan Steel – Linda Kuhle – I mean, Linda, he’s put everything into his business. I don’t think he’s got insurance, and his equipment is absolutely and utterly destroyed. He literally has to start again. He just bought a whole lot of steel to go into production for something. He’s going to lose those orders. He doesn’t have the resources to replace the steel and his machinery is destroyed. So, you know, how does he start again and support his family? It’s just indiscriminate destruction of things that decent people have built. It’s not acceptable.

On how communities have reacted: 

I think they are terrified. Communities are setting up barriers to residential areas to prevent any looting of houses and things, which for me, is more than a little disturbing. It takes you to places you don’t really want to go psychologically. We enjoyed so many freedoms in South Africa and it feels like all of those freedoms have now been taken away, that people’s constitutional rights to safety and security and just peaceful living have been removed. Some of the stuff is stoking racial tension, which you don’t want to see in South Africa. And while situations like this can bring out really great things and fellow South Africans, it can also bring out some pretty awful stuff. So, the sooner we get control of this and the sooner that we find ways to work together to get on top of this issue, the better it will be for everybody.

On what might happen in the future:

Look, I think that we’ll certainly learn a lot of lessons out of what has happened here. Maybe we’ll have some hard conversations that we probably needed to have prior to this having happened; conversations that are very necessary. Maybe we’ll find new ways to work together. But I do think that there are a lot of underlying issues that we’ve glossed over in the past that will be ventilated through this process and that we’re going to have to work together to find solutions to. So I’ve found it probably the hardest I’ve ever found it in the last couple of days to remain an optimist. I think [in] my heart of hearts I always will be. I have immense love for this country, immense love for my city, and I think that if we all stand together, perhaps we come out better at the end of this. We’re hoping so. Well, that’s what I’m hoping for anyway.

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