MUST WATCH: 72 HOURS OF ANARCHY – a first-hand account of the civil unrest in July

The South African Human Rights Council’s probe into the infamous civil unrest of July 2021 has opened the floor to justice seekers and provides the opportunity for those who have been affected by the disorder and lawlessness to come forward with their accounts. In an explosive presentation at the BizNews Investment Conference in September, Jason McCormick, CEO of the real estate investment trust, Exemplar, shared his exceptional and personal look into the events that shook the country. A number of the McCormick family’s properties had been looted, vandalised and all but destroyed, but the fight isn’t over, he says, as the family will look to rebuild and come back stronger. Watch the riveting interview below. – Misha Samuels

Jason McCormick on his week of hell

That week was like the longest day in my life because we had so little sleep. You didn’t know what happened, everything became hazy, you were literally running on adrenaline. You were doing what you had to do to try and protect what you had left. And we forgot so much in all the chaos. So going through the WhatsApps, I cannot tell you how many times I broke down emotionally, just burst into tears because, you know, you suddenly get transported back to where you were. 

The human body, the human psyche is such an amazing thing. When you’re under duress, you just go and you’re able to stand up for everything. Afterwards, when the stress is released, and you went back and saw – actually – what we’d gone through, it was, for me, a very emotional thing. Because as I say, in that haze of panic and adrenaline and caffeine and lack of sleep and everything else, you kind of forget just how much we have gone through. 

And so, in many ways, thank you for that because I was able to offload a lot of the emotions. It was kind of cathartic just being able to kind of just dump it again by going through all the WhatsApp groups and everything else. But certainly from my side, the overarching thing is [that] we are coming back. 

On the criminal element evident in tactics used by the looters

There was definitely a massive criminal element. If you look at how the cash extraction [was carried out] if you look at how precise they were in hitting the cash in all of our centres. You know, out of the seven centres that went down, every single shop was damaged, every single ATM, every single safe was opened at 438 stores. In Chris Hani Crossing in Vosloorus, they drilled in, they filled the ATMs with water, they used a special gel explosive. 

They then exploded that so the dye didn’t penetrate the cash. They literally knew where the Shoprite safe, the cash office, was. They measured it out in the outside world. They had their own standby generators that they had brought with the cutting equipment. They cut in exactly where, in the plans, that cash office was. They went in from the outside, instead of from the inside; it was far more fortified, so they came through the outside wall. 

That’s not someone who just arrives on the day and says, “Well, listen, let’s go just try and bash open…” It was proper. 

On what he takes away from the whole experience

In my mind, you cannot go through this and discount the fact that it may happen again. Absolutely not, because otherwise, when it happens again, you’re a fool for not being properly prepared. So, we are going with the understanding and the thought process that if this were to happen again, how would we react differently or how are we going to harden our perimeters. And we’ve got a lot of really cool ideas that we are going to be implementing.

Obviously, the big important side of it is how we handle this socially with our communities. We have always been very close to our communities, which is one of the reasons why it hurts. Our centre managers, in particular, because of how we’ve worked on our CSI projects with all the communities, with the local businesses, with our local shareholders.

And my overarching feeling coming through all of this is that the good people outnumber the bad. This was a small group of very organised people. And the upwelling, the support that we’ve got from the greater community everywhere is like, “We will not allow this to happen again.” Yes, a lot of the people were opportunistic.

There’s no doubt [that] inequality is a massive problem that needs to be [addressed]. We can’t just keep paying lip service. We need to do more to fix it. But the reality is, as I said, the upwelling of support from the community, the number of people who protest what’s happened, that have said, “We’re ashamed at what we have done and let’s hold hands and let’s build this and build it better, stronger and we can take it forward.”

And that’s my takeaway because this has almost forced me into more close conversations with everyone. That’s what I’ve taken away and the hope that I take away out of it.

On the involvement of the South African Police Service during the violent riots and looting spree

There’s no doubt the police need to be better trained, better funded. You know, we had stories of the SAPS women, one of the female SAPS officers shooting a shotgun from the crook of her arm. Now, I don’t know if any of you guys have ever fired shotguns, but you put it in your shoulder otherwise, it kicks the hell out of you. And, ywhen you get your firearm licence, you’ve got to do what’s called a competency test and I’m sure that’s not in the handbook on how to fire a shotgun.

Certainly the training, the co-ordination; there’s no doubt that the intelligence services let us down. And, as I said, we knew the information coming through the hostels way before the SAPS was able to respond to it. Unfortunately, this is the problem with factionalism. There are people who support one side or the other side – not that I’m making it a political thing – but there’s certainly no doubt there were certain areas where the police were fantastic and there were certain areas where they were completely absent.

And I’m not saying that it was factionalism but there were reasons. There are reasons behind it because you cannot have SAPS being excellent here and absolutely absent – or, sometimes we were thinking complicit – in other areas. I certainly don’t have those answers. I’m not, as I say, in intelligence services. But there are certainly questions that need to be asked at a high level.

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