Civil unrest raged for nearly 10 days in parts of South Africa after the arrest of its former President, Jacob Zuma, for contempt of court in a corruption case, on July 7.

People from the Indian community in South Africa involved in relief workFacebook/South African Hindu Maha Sabha
news Riots Saturday, July 24, 2021 - 15:17

Narendh Ganesh nearly missed a bullet when he was amidst the exchange of gunfire between Indian South Africans and mobs on the intervening night of July 14 and 15. Civil unrest raged for nearly 10 days in parts of South Africa after the arrest of its former President, Jacob Zuma, for contempt of court in a corruption case, on July 7. Thousands, allegedly Zuma supporters, vandalised, looted and ransacked stores, business establishments and national highways. Mobs went on a rampage, attacking neighbourhoods, including Indian-origin Narendh’s area in Duff's Road, situated in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) — the epicentre of the riots.

The arson attacks and looting broke out in parts of South Africa with sizeable Indian communities (among other communities) — Durban’s Phoenix town in KwaZulu-Natal province and parts of in Gauteng province, keeping the residents on their toes. The residents in Duff’s Road suburb in Durban North started night patrol, on guard against any intrusions, Narendh told TNM. “Late on July 14, a mob breached our neighbourhood. We quickly evacuated women and children, but not all of them. Although we alerted the five to six police forces in the region, they initially said they could not enter the suburb without instructions from their respective commanders. Many residents, meanwhile, took up arms to defend themselves and their houses as the mob threw a petrol bomb at one of the houses,” recalled Narendh, who is the chairperson of his civic association. After five to six rounds of alleged intermittent exchange of gunfire, the tension was quelled.

Everything is calm, for now at least, said Narendh, “but we don’t know for how long.” As the political situation in South Africa snowballed into acts of crimes, the riot left unemployment and inflation of essential items in its wake. Anger among its native Black residents took a racial undertone against Indians and people from other communities, on social media and reportedly on the streets. Even as the fear of another episode of violence grips them, the Indian community in the country —  Indians and Indian-origin South Africans — is now focusing on supporting and looking out for each other as well as other communities through food packets, baby food, groceries, sanitary napkins, raising funds for essential food items and even night patrolling.

Meeting the food shortage

At a time when food insecurity remains the immediate concern among the residents, the Indian and other communities stepped in not just to help their own, but all residents of all communities in need. “There was a massive food shortage in the first two days of the riots as shops were looted. Residents panicked wondering how they could buy staples such as bread, a bag of rice and milk,” Ali*, an Indian South African in Durban’s Overport, which has a large population of people from Muslim and Indian communities. As long queues of people lined up outside stores, some shops limited the number of people entering at a time. While a few shops heavily inflated the prices of basic food supplies, many others retained the prices amid the shortage, he said.

Addressing the food shortage in affected areas meant sourcing essentials from other parts of the country. However, the food chain supply was disrupted as several national highways and arterial roads were closed in view of the riots. Indian residents and people from other communities in Johannesburg, which was affected in some areas, sent food supplies and other assistance to the residents in Durban. However, the major N3 highway connecting Durban and Johannesburg was closed.

“The ports in KZN were closed, shops and malls in Durban were either looted, burned or closed. Even the distribution centres were looted and burned, so people in Durban had no access to food and aid. We had to wait for the N3 freeway to reopen before we could transport the food and aid to Durban,” said Nishant*, an Indian South African residing in Johannesburg, who, along with his brother, owns a trucking company like many Indians in the country.

The N3 freeway, incidentally, is a notorious trade route where trucks carrying food supplies have been targeted and burned over the last few years, he said. Several trucks carrying immediate essential supplies were escorted into Durban by the South African army and police. “The Indians living in Johannesburg and some from the white community assisted with donations of food and aid,” Nishant told TNM while he was putting together baby formula and nappies to transport to Durban. Johannesburg was not severely affected as the residents, including the Black community, were quick to defend the malls, which house supplies, he added.

The Sikh community in South Africa, too, is doing their bit to address the food shortage. The Sikhs form a small community in South Africa. “We are organising langar seva (Sikh community kitchen serving food for all free of cost), where we serve one hot meal every day in our gurudwara in Durban for residents in the immediate and neighbouring areas. We are working with local companies and individuals to run a food drive and distribute food packets,” Jasleen, a member of the Sikh community, told journalist Rajan Nazran Singh in his podcast for the Global Indian Series, which tells stories from the ground.  

Guarding communities

The civil unrest in South Africa has claimed the lives of 337 people, including some Indian South Africans who were caught in the exchange of fire. Many Indian residents in Phoenix — one of the largest Indian townships in Durban apart from Chatsworth — sent out desperate calls for help as their houses were shot at. “The greatest damage of the civil unrest is the anxiety and fear it has induced among the Indian communities,” said Ali.

Amid reports of another protest on Friday, July 23, and fears of another arson attack, Indian communities across the country have organised themselves into teams to carry out night patrol. Ali from Overport in Durban, too, is contributing by assisting in the neighbourhood watches. “On July 18, as mobs went around in different neighbourhoods, ransacking and looting shops, buildings and petrol stations, a lot of neighbourhood watch groups coalesced. We set up roadblocks near the entrance of the streets and take turns to control the flow of traffic in and out of communities. These barricades are intended to double as a deterrent as the residents fear the mobs will burn down or loot their houses,” he said.

“We have also asked night patrol volunteers to exercise caution and restraint if someone is just walking past. We have asked them not to respond unless provoked,” said Narendh, who is a fifth generation Indian from Bihar.

Amid instances of racial attacks against a few Indians during the South Africa riots, Narendh is currently in the process of formulating ways to form a social coalition between different communities. A garden is what he has chalked out. “Here, members from all communities can plant vegetables in this garden and share their produce with each other,” he said, adding, “One cannot merely ask another person to stop racial discrimination, but find ways to gradually eradicate those differences.”

Bringing communities together

The wave of attacks that began on July 8 is considered one of the worst since post-apartheid in 1994. The riots cost KwaZulu-Natal alone over 20 billion rand (100 billion Indian rupees) and made about 1.50 lakh jobs vulnerable to risk, reported Mail & Guardian, a South African news website. Businesses that were burned may never recover, according to some Indian residents. Most of the businesses in South Africa are owned by Indians, whose ancestors migrated from British India to South Africa as indentured labourers and migrants in the late 1800s.

The riots added to the setback that the COVID-19 pandemic had brought on, said Nishant. “We do try to create more jobs but the economy is rapidly collapsing. For example, our textile industry has completely collapsed due to imports from China, and thousands lost their jobs,” said Nishant.

However, what all Indian South Africans unequivocally pointed to was the show of solidarity among all communities. “It was devastating, but people stuck together irrespective of their ethnicities and what they have lost,” said Jasleen. “I saw the Indians in South Africa stand together as one for the first time. We protected our homes and neighbourhoods, helping the elderly and needy,” said Nishant.

(*Names changed on request)

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