A Week's Rioting Has Decimated 100 Years of South African-Indians' Efforts

However, Indians – who have borne considerable losses in the violence and have needed to guard their own neighbourhoods – are not describing the offensive by Zuma's supporters entirely as a racist one.

Listen to this article:

This is part one of a two-part series on the recent violence in South Africa. Part two will shed light on why South Africa is resting on a powder keg.

Kolkata: Vanessa Narotam’s voice choked several times during an hour-long telephone conversation from riot-ravaged Durban, an eastern coastal province of South Africa.

“We have to start again from scratch,” she said.

The 46-year-old Vanessa and her family own one of the top wholesale and retail food, drinks and beverages brand in South Africa, the Panjivan Group of Companies. Three of Panjivan’s four sprawling stores have been flattened since a violent protest engulfed two of South Africa’s nine provinces – north-central Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal (KZN) on the Indian Ocean, a little over 8000 kilometres from the coast of India.

“I am now watching on television one of our shops being looted and razed to the ground,” said Vanessa. The immediate trigger of the violence was to first prevent and then to ensure the release of former South African president Jacob Zuma after his imprisonment earlier in July. 

 The court gave Zuma a 15-month jail term for defying an instruction earlier in February to table evidence at an inquiry into corruption during his nine years in power until 2018, reported Reuters. Right before Zuma handed himself over, his supporters led by Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, formerly the armed group of the African National Congress (ANC), threatened that the “country will be torn apart”, if Zuma is sent to prison.

Former President Jacob Zuma in May 24, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Rogan Ward

Gauteng and KZN were indeed torn apart and nearly 80 are killed officially till Thursday, July 15. Unofficially, the toll stands at 120 and the medium-sized business groups are at the epicentre of the violence. Panjivan’s, with a turnover of over two billion Rand (more than Rs 1,000 crore plus), is one of the worst hit. 

“Over the weekend we heard the rumour that our shop at Isipingo, south of Durban in KZN, could be attacked. My husband was confident that the police would be able to handle it. Around early evening on Sunday (July 11) we got a call…” paused Vanessa to confirm the time from her husband, who requested that his first name be withheld. 

“At 7 pm, as we were told about the assembly of the people near the Isipingo shop, my husband rushed.” By the time Vanessa’s husband reached the shop, a mob took control of the 5,000 square meter campus of the first ever shop the family has owned, a typical cash-and-carry food and liquor store. 

Also read: Unrest Is Being Used To Subvert South Africa’s Democracy: Giving In Is Not an Option

“Everything was taken, not just the consumables and the cash but the air conditioners, the furniture, the cameras, the truck batteries and the tyres. The looting went on till the next morning,” she said.

The police and the security guards watched. They could do very little as they were barred from using live ammunition on the day. It was no more a pro-Zuma protest, said Vanessa but, “absolute criminal action.”  

“Once the loot was over, the shop next to us owned by my husband’s uncle was ransacked and set on fire. We called the Fire Department repeatedly, but unfortunately, no help came.” As the water sprinklers kicked in, the fire stopped, but petrol bombs were lobbed. “It was absolute devastation,” said Vanessa.

Panjivan’s Isipingo store before and after (right) it was gutted. Photo: Narotams

As the Isipingo shop was torched, the Narotams came to know that a mob had entered the Panjivan’s Swelani shop in Phoenix, about 25 kilometres northwest of Durban, and the other one at KZN’s capital Pietermaritzburg – where Mahatma Gandhi was thrown out of a train – was looted. Their vehicles stolen or burnt. The Port Shepstone shop, south of Durban, is unharmed for now. 

Vanessa used the word “devastation” a dozen times to explain how an enterprise built over 100 years was decimated in about 100 hours.  

Narotam Jeena (Mothiram Amtha), who migrated from Surat to KwaZulu Natal in 1890s. His family runs Panjivan’s. Photo: Narotam family

In many ways, their family’s story is the narrative of Indians in KZN, who left the shores of India in thousands, across provinces of what was then a British colony in the middle of the 19th century as indentured labourers, merchants or professionals, to work in another British colony.  

A few years later, in 1894, Gandhi founded the Natal Indian Congress. At that time, a young trader from Gujarat’s Surat reached Pietermaritzburg station from East London. Mothiram Amtha, the trader, whose name was changed to ‘Narotam Jeena’ by South African immigration worked on the railways and as a vegetable seller in his early years. He started many shops and so did his sons and nephews till the chain was founded in “a tin shack”, by his grandson Panjivan Chota Narotam.

Panjivan Chota Narotam, who started Panjivan’s in 1950 from “a tin shack.” Photo: Narotam family

The chain-store, founded in 1950, gets its name from Panjivan, Vanessa’s husband’s grandfather.

“It took five generations over 120 years. They poured their blood, sweat and tears into a business that would service and sustain the very communities that turned on them,” said Vanessa.  

An executive of high profit liquor trade indicated that out of 21 medium-sized independent liquor businesses at play in the region – outside the league of big national brands – “nearly all” were Indian owned ones.  

Brutal as it may be, the Narotams’ story is not unique. Mobs have been on a rampage in pockets despite army deployment on Monday, July 12, after at least 120 hours of arson. 

While deployment was ordered on Monday, the first time personnel could be seen on the ground in KwaZulu Natal was Friday, July 16, say residents. Salma Patel, a news editor with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and an executive producer with SABC Radio, said, “The situation is calming down with army in the streets. It is acting as a good deterrent to violence and the positive news is that the civil society is coming together and has made appeals to calm things down. Patrolling, also, is multi-racial in nature.”

The lawlessness of the days between Monday and Friday compelled Indians to set up their own vigilante forces carrying assault rifles, said Umesh Morar, a 56-year-old tobacconist of north Durban. Morar’s three Durban-based tobacco and knick-knack shops were looted earlier in the week. He indicated that their trust is shaken. 

“We were not attacked last night [July 14] after two nights of rioting but we are still guarding our streets as we do not know if it is the lull before the next storm. We are feeling deeply vulnerable,” said Morar. 

Also read: South African Riots: FM Pandor Assures Jaishankar of Early Restoration of Normalcy

Trust shaken as Indians form vigilante forces 

Insecurity has shaken the relationship between the Indian-origin South Africans and the black Africans developed over a century when Natal Indian Congress was formed. Indians who had participated unanimously in the anti-Apartheid struggle find the strength of their ties depleting. 

“KZN is a Zulu province. They are mobilising and, do not forget, they are top class fighters. Zuma is Zulu and most of the province’s officials are from the same ethnic group. So, in case of violence, can we trust the officials to rein in Zuma’s Zulu supporters?” asks Morar. There are about 1.5 million Indians in South Africa – a mere 2.5% of the population – with about a million residing in KZN. 

Morar said Indians are spread all over KZN and are being targeted everywhere. The situation is worse in Phoenix where Indians are a majority but are surrounded by blacks. “In Durban, we are now trying to protect the areas which have not been targeted yet,” Morar said.

Umesh Morar’s Royal Tobacconist before being gutted. At the top of this page is the shop after destruction. Photo: Umesh Morar

The Indians have formed vigilante forces of their own with many carrying “assault rifles” and setting up roadblocks at the entrances and exits of their enclaves. “The ones with rifles are at the front of the vigilante groups, while the boys carrying cricket bats and hockey sticks are behind them. We do not have an alternative as we are yet to see any army vehicles. The police has asked for bullets from us,” said Morar on Thursday, July 15.

These private vigilante forces are not letting anyone enter their respective neighbourhoods.

“It is like you are in Noida and not allowing a neighbour from Mayur Vihar in east Delhi to enter your area out of deep fear,” said Morar. 

A Johannesburg-based journalist said that some of the members of South African-Indian street fighting forces “are dollar millionaires with business establishments across Africa and India.”  

A business woman, Riaa Algoo, who was featured in Forbes magazine, was in a state of panic hours after the army had hit the streets of Durban.

“Call me any time,” she messaged. “we are always awake as we need to guard our homes and families.” In separate messages, Algoo – with businesses in India – noted that the community has “hardly any businesses left” in South Africa. 

Also read: What Jacob Zuma’s Sentencing Means for South Africa

“It is all burnt down. The bread factories, dairies, farms are destroyed too. We will now run out of food. The Army and police are not protecting us, we need the United Nations,” noted Algoo. 

As panic escalates with every passing hour, with every text and voice message, and with each post on Twitter, where both black Africans and Indians are posting footage of a week’s madness with intermittent and chilling threats to each other.

A photograph taken from a car in Durban on Friday. Photo: By arrangement

Privately circulated videos of graphic violence reminds one of past African massacres when minorities were attacked indiscriminately. The streets of KZN are filled with hundreds of thousands of people carrying mainly food, electronic goods and daily consumables looted from supermarkets. “A reasonably well organised province has been gutted overnight,” said Vanessa Narotam.

“The warehouses, the Makros – supermarkets – malls, buildings all razed.”

The damage is colossal for the poorest provinces of an African country with about 60 million people; over 10 billion rand (Rs 5,000 crore plus) worth of goods and property was damaged, the Provincial Government of KwaZulu Natal has estimated. In a social media statement the local government noted 200 incidents of looting and 26 deaths, a figure disputed by Indians.

About ‘353,000 tonnes of sugarcane’– one of the main foreign currency earners – was ‘lost to arson,’ the government statement said. The statement also noted that about 200 shopping malls are damaged. Many of these mega-malls housed shops of mainly South African-Indians. 

The fear is further exacerbated with repeated calls to remove Indians from important positions by a 40-year-old African National Congress renegade Julius Sello Malema. 

“South Africa is run by an Indian cabal,” he says often, “controlling all financial institutions.” The former ANC Youth League president has stepped up his campaign against president Ramphosa, favoured by the west. Malema has all the hallmarks of a populist young leader – a bit like Kapil Mishra of North East Delhi – and Economic Freedom Fighters’ (EFF) party has about 6.5% votes and two dozen seats in the national parliament. Yet Indians – who are deeply entrenched in South Africa’s society, business and politics – are not describing the offensive entirely as a racist one.

“It is about politics, finally,” said Morar. 

The Economist newspaper used a separate set of words to express similar thoughts. The violence was incited with a “narrow aim” to have Zuma released but the “broader goal is to make the country ungovernable so as to undermine his (Zuma’s) successor, Cyril Ramaphosa,” the newspaper noted. 

Morar is not a British newspaper editor defending Ramphosa but a businessman who lost three 50 square metre shops on prime real estate of Durban. Yet he and his community are stopping short of branding this week’s violence as an exclusively racial attack.  

The question is why. 

Suvojit Bagchi is a senior journalist who has previously worked with BBC and The Hindu.