Thembelani Mkhize writes his account of what happened on July 15, when the mall in the Midlands township was stormed by looters.
Choices, right or wrong, are often blurred in the heat of chaos. The line between good and bad becomes thinner when you find yourself in the middle of a shopping centre dodging bullets and broken bottles amid a war between the people and the law.
This is my first-hand account of the protests and looting at the Mpophomeni Shopping Centre on July 15 2021.
At about 8.05pm I got a call about burning trucks on the R617 blocking the entrance to Mpophomeni and disrupting the route between Howick and Bulwer. This was right after an address by President Cyril Ramaphosa and following the recent arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.
When I got to the scene, one of the trucks tanks had just exploded, sending shock waves through a crowd of about 400-500 people gathered outside Mpophomeni Shopping Centre.
“Free Zuma” chants could be heard around the whole township, with sporadic groups of protesters joining in the chaotic escapade one group at a time.
I was standing on a little bank outside the centre gate with a group of onlookers trying to get an interview with one of the protesters when I heard someone screaming “bangena ecentre”, which means “they just entered the shopping centre”. I looked back to see a crowd of people running into the shopping centre like ants to a sugar cube.
When I turned to look at the township behind me, there was a crowd of more than 200 people stampeding towards me. The first to pass me was a middle-aged lady in a grey nightdress, second was a kid of about 12, next was a make-up artist influencer with 100k likes, and after her I was pretty sure I saw the usher from one of the local churches. I couldn’t really make out many faces, it was dark and people were wearing masks.
The first shop to get hit was a cellphone repair and appliance shop, a clothing store next to it followed, then a postage and stationery shop and all the other shops east of the centre. In less than an hour they had looted every shop on that side and it was time to go inside.
Another clothing store and a pharmacy were the first to go, as people ran out with clothes and medical supplies. Baby food and nappies from an essentials store were next and, after a brief fight with the roller door, someone came up with the idea of going in through the ceiling, kicking out the liquor store light box and handing out bottles like Santa Clause. Just when I thought things couldn’t get any stranger, I saw what I could swear were two municipal employees with bottles of whiskey running out the main door.
Dropped in the frenzy
I went in for a closer look. The floor was covered in glass and water. The air had a sweet pungent spirit smell and you could barely breathe with the thick smoke of teargas they kept deploying. An elderly woman trying to get out of Shoprite with a box of food slipped and fell right in front of my feet. I helped her up and she asked if I could help her get the box of food on her head. For a second it didn’t really dawn on me that I had become an accomplice – it only hit me when I saw the bottles of baby food she dropped in the frenzy as she ran out of the centre. I picked up the soaking wet six-pack of baby food and just stood there with it.
Moments later I saw one of the security guards who worked at the centre just standing there in disbelief. We looked at each other without saying a word, but I could tell what he was thinking – that he was going to be out of a job for a few months, at least. I knew him well from my visits to the centre and usually we would greet each other. Hopelessly outnumbered, he couldn’t do a thing but watch as the horror unfolded in front of him. Trying to keep the damage as minimal as possible, he made his way into the KFC outlet to ask some of the guys to take what they wanted and leave without damaging the property, but they weren’t hearing him.
The police arrived shortly after. People came charging out the centre entrance as police entered firing gunshots and spaying the crowd with pepper spray. The law was stretched thin that day as there were riots in Howick and Pietermaritzburg too. It seemed only one police van with three officers made it to the scene.
I would have headed for the gate if I hadn’t seen my cousin running into the centre trying to get away from the police. My first thought was that if I left him there and he got hurt I’d have to explain to my grandmother and aunt about why I didn’t drag him home.
The crowd rushed back into the centre throwing empty bottles when they realised there were only three cops and hundreds of them. Using the crowd as cover, I made my way into the main entrance and searched for my cousin inside Shoprite. It only hit me when I found him in isle 4 that I had twisted my ankle and there was a large bottle stuck in my shoe. I removed the bottle and dragged him out with two packs of Huggies in his arms. When we got outside I asked what he was thinking and he simply replied, “My baby mama was gonna kill me if I didn’t get these bro, don’t you see what’s happening here. We won’t have anything for the next few days”. I got him safely out of the centre but an hour later I saw him running back in again.
3am and the situation just kept getting worse. It was organised chaos, with cars turning into transport services. I never thought I’d see a hatchback carrying two double-door fridges and a man carrying a garage door on his head. My foot was starting to heat up as my adrenaline calmed; I could feel pain with every step.
I got a ride home at about 4am but I couldn’t sleep thinking about what had just happened. The bottles of Purity and pack of nappies from my cousin were sitting on my desk and all I could think was, “I was only there for a story now look at me … a looter”.
The sun came up and I was still wide awake – updates on my phone about the situation in Howick looked grim. Most of the stores were burnt and the first person who came to mind was a friend and client, Scott Smiley, who runs Jasper’s in Main Street. He only recently opened his store and I thought the looters had got to his shop, but fortunately, after a call, he explained that Jasper’s survived but he had to rescue some of his friends from a crowd of looters at the local tavern.
Howick was up in arms, with daily patrols around the small town and roadblocks set up to protect the remaining supermarkets like Greendale Spar and St Johns Pick n Pay.
The situation might have exposed the flaws in our society but our efforts to come together and help each other show the potential we have to do better.
Mpophomeni Mall centre manager Blessing Makhaye says the damage was extensive but they expect every shop to be back by December 2021. He struck an upbeat tone. “All our stores including Shoprite will be back in time for the festive season. With so much more to offer,” he said.