SOWETO, South Africa – The manager gingerly stepped across the slippery, muddy floor of a supermarket in Soweto that had just been emptied and gutted by looters, wondering where the neighbors would get their food now and how he would get his wife and his would feed four children.
“Our livelihoods are gone,” said Tau Chikonye, the 44-year-old manager who worked in the market known as the Supa Store for 13 years.
Nearby, outside his five-bedroom home, a laid-off hotel worker who had participated in the looting and carting away flour, chicken, Pepsi, and dog food for his family, pondered the damage that had been done: his ward had no more a store nearby for shopping.
“I feel awful,” said the unemployed hospitality worker Sifiso, who asked that his last name be withheld for fear of being arrested.
South Africa has been rocked to the core last week by looting and vandalism that left at least 117 people dead and hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, officials said. It was one of the worst acts of violence and unrest the country had seen in the nearly 30 years since the end of apartheid.
The government sent 10,000 troops to quell the violence and the defense minister asked for 15,000 more. When tensions eased a little on Thursday, many prepared for a difficult path.
The turmoil was initially triggered by the arrest of former South African President Jacob Zuma last week for defying a court order to testify in a corruption investigation. Mr. Zuma, despite widespread allegations of the transplant, remains a loyal following.
But the unrest quickly turned to broader complaints against the government and its failure to deliver on the promises of a democratic South Africa. It was as if the lid had been blown off a pot that had been boiling for years.
“People are losing their conscience,” said Sifiso, the 32-year-old hotel worker who lost his job in the pandemic shutdown last year. “The government is failing us, which means they don’t care how we feel as people in South Africa. If it means we go to a mall to ransack or block a street so that the government can actually hear people’s screams, so be it. “
Hours of queues for food and gas have formed in the coastal city of Durban and the Johannesburg area after the unrest destroyed supplies and disrupted supply chains. Government officials managed an inconsistent dynamic in which residents of some communities took up arms to defend their neighborhoods, with fear of vigilante justice fueling racial tensions.
All of this is playing out as South Africa battles a devastating wave of coronavirus infections that could worsen after looters without masks in crowded shops.
Unemployment, which has risen over 32 percent in part because of the pandemic, is almost certain to spike as well, as thousands suddenly become unemployed because the companies they worked for have been destroyed.
“We’re all going to suffer,” said Leonard Ncube, standing in front of Boxer, a battered department store in Soweto where he worked as a manager as parishioners picked up broken glass and rubbish in the parking lot. He now had no work and a household of seven to support.
The violence has been the main challenge of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s three-year term. Political opponents and citizens criticized his reaction as slow and asked him to be more assertive. He also had to grapple with challenges to his leadership by his own party, the African National Congress. He and his cabinet ministers have met with parishioners as well as politicians, religious and business leaders in recent days to restore confidence.
After Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Mr Zuma, was arrested last week, Zuma supporters, who had long disagreed with the current president, called on people to stand up in protest. The demonstrations began last week in Mr. Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, quickly got out of hand and spread to Gauteng, a more affluent province in which Johannesburg is located.
In interviews with people in Soweto on Wednesday, as the situation calmed down, several said they were drawn into the looting because they saw others doing it. Some said they were looking for basic needs that are often difficult to get hold of in this poor economy.
Others were simply looking for liquor they couldn’t buy in the past few weeks due to a liquor sales ban under the country’s coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Zuma’s name was hardly mentioned.
Sifiso’s story is typical for many: he first heard of the looting on Monday after a call from a friend who worked in a mall, he said. He went and helped some of his friends get liquor from the mall, then heard from another friend that people were browsing the Supa store in the Soweto parish of Dlamini near his home. He said his refrigerator was empty and he was concerned that the looting would use up supplies.
So he went along to pick up goods for his wife and two children. The shop was so full, he said, that he had to push his way through a sea of people and wade shoulder to shoulder. The few policemen outside the shop could do nothing to stop the swarm of looters.
He only realized his regret later when he helped an elderly woman into a taxi. She told him that she had to go to a mall to do some shopping because the supermarket had been destroyed. He had to deliver the news that the mall had also been ransacked, and then the realization of what he’d done hit him.
“Our elderly people who actually rely on those supermarkets or malls near the location – they are being ransacked,” he said. “So now it is these people who are actually suffering.”
But the suffering preceded the recent riots. People have already been fired. Those who are still working see their salaries cut. The cost of goods is increasing. Basic services fail.
Sifiso said his neighborhood had been without power for nine months. Local residents had to pay for public utilities to install new equipment to restore electricity.
Many are angry at reports of government corruption that undermines the government’s moral authority and makes the promises of Nelson Mandela’s South Africa seem elusive.
Mr Chikonye, the manager of the Supa Store, said he could understand the anger and disillusionment of the looters who stole food from the market, but he couldn’t understand why they destroyed the building.
“Why are we burning the very resources we need that will actually rise us?” He said. “If we want to protest, we protest in a different way. But not to come and destroy resources. “
The store has done 150,000 transactions a month, but now it’s blacked out and devastated as if a tornado had ripped through it. Behind a large banner of a smiling family at the entrance is the rest of the products that the shop once sold: flattened corn flakes packaging, juice boxes, beverage cans. The shelves are completely empty. Only ice packs remain in the freezer.
The owner of the Supa Store, which was due to celebrate its 20th birthday in September, has vowed to reopen. But there is no telling when that will be, said Mr Chikonye, and the 300 or so employees remain in limbo. He said he had already spoken to his wife about ways to make money in the meantime – maybe get eggs from a chicken farm and sell them on the street.
“That’s the most overwhelming,” he said. “I really have to go to the drawing board and see how I survive.”