After deadly riots in South Africa, volunteer army leads defense and cleanup efforts

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DURBAN, South Africa – Noxious smoke from days of rioting and widespread looting loomed over parts of this lush seaside town over the weekend as residents took to the streets to defend their homes and businesses against further violence.

“We have to hold (our) position,” Margaret Westerhof, 42, told NBC News at a volunteer traffic checkpoint on the outskirts of the Ballito suburb. Normally an interior designer, Westerhof offered to serve as a media liaison for the community organization that sprang up in response to the unrest.

“It is our duty to continue to support local authorities … to patrol our areas, ensure the security of our businesses,” she added.

Nationwide protests began with the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on July 7. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt of court after failing to appear before an investigation into corruption and state capture during his administration.

What started as a political protest turned into destruction not only in Durban – a city of 3.7 million people home to many Zuma supporters – but in the administrative capital of Pretoria and the largest urban center. , Johannesburg.

Volunteers maintain a traffic control post at a highway interchange in a suburb of Durban, South Africa, to prevent unrest after a week of riots.Linda Givetash / for NBC News

Tires were set on the streets and shopping centers were emptied. At least 212 people have been killed across the country, more than 2,550 have been arrested and more suspects are under surveillance, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a nationwide televised address on Friday.

Ramaphosa admitted that the government had been “ill-prepared” to respond to such levels of violence. In an effort to regain stability, 25,000 soldiers from the South African National Defense Force have been deployed to support police across the country, he said.

Until that extra security is in place and fears are allayed, Westerhof said hundreds of Ballito volunteers will control access inside and outside the area.

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“We really feel that we have to be still present, vigilant. And we cannot let our guard down just yet, ”she said of the hundreds of people guarding the checkpoints in shifts from 4 to 12 hours.

After days of violence, Westerhof said the sight of a truck belonging to a supermarket chain passing through the checkpoint on Saturday was “nothing less than a miracle”.

Durban stores that were not ransacked rationed food, gasoline and other supplies to expand stocks after the distribution of goods was disrupted by truck fires and highway closures.

While the residents of Ballito remained on their guard, in other areas the cleanup was underway. About three dozen volunteers from a Durban church methodically swept up debris, including pieces of raw chicken from a food factory on the streets of a business park.

“We’ve come to show people that they don’t just have to focus on the… bad things happening all over the country. They must also focus on the good, ”said Apostle Motsepe, 37, pastor of the church.

Motsepe said he hoped there wouldn’t be another wave of riots. But the complex factors that contributed to the unrest remain unresolved.

Outrage over the imprisonment of Zuma – a former anti-apartheid freedom fighter – could be sparked again as the corruption investigation and separate charges against him linked to an arms deal in the years 1990 progress through the courts.

Deeper issues fueling the unrest include the extreme poverty and inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. The country’s unemployment rate topped 32 percent in the first quarter of the year.

Crews are cleaning up aquatic life in Umhlanga Lagoon north of Durban, South Africa, after a fire at a nearby chemical plant infiltrated toxins into the water system.Linda Givetash / for NBC News

“You can cross the street and see a Rolls-Royce, but you can walk down the street and find someone with no clothes on,” Motsepe said. “What you are seeing is a situation where the disgruntled society has finally found an opportunity to speak out.”

The toll of damage is still being discovered in Durban.

A fire at an agricultural chemicals factory hit by rioters was still brewing on Saturday, emitting black smoke and unsanitary fumes. In a nearby lagoon, the water had turned turquoise and mounds of dead fish and crabs had surfaced.

“It’s terrible,” said Sihle Ngcobo, 27, who works for a hazardous waste management company that leads the cleanup of dead aquatic life.

“Some people eat these fish,” he said, explaining why the removal of carcasses was important for public safety.

Despite the fears and disappointment of local institutions to prevent the riots, Westerhof said the uprising of volunteers across the country was encouraging.

“It’s amazing the patriotic nature of a South African,” she said. “It’s amazing in a crisis that is manifesting itself.”



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