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Children as young as five joined July looting, says Soweto civic leader

While hundreds of people were arrested after the damage and looting of malls in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal in the July 2021 unrest, a Soweto community leader has painted a bleak picture of how children, some as young as five years old, participated in the crimes.

“There were five-year-olds carrying looted items because they saw their fathers, mothers and uncles carrying looted things,” said Themba Makhubela of the Bahlali Baduli non-profit organisation.

He was testifying before the SA Human Rights Commission which is probing the unrest which flared up shortly after the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. Scores of businesses were destroyed and more than 300 people lost their lives.

Makhubela told the commission how he and other community members watched helplessly as they saw people, many of whom they knew personally, loot the Diepkloof Mall.

There were five-year-olds who were carrying looted items because they saw their father, mothers and uncles carrying looted things.

Themba Makhubela, community leader 

In some instances families looted together.

“The participants were not only adults. There were fathers, mothers and children participating as a family in the looting.”

He observed how one family had positioned their children at a tree a short distance from the mall. The adults would move into the mall to loot and return to drop their looted goods with the children. Once they had gathered all they wanted, they moved together back home.

“It was an ugly scene … it was poverty that led to this,” said Makhubela, adding some people were desperate after losing their jobs or were suffering from salary cuts during the Covid-19 pandemic.

He and other community leaders stood for hours watching as community members went into the mall and came out with trolleys filled with items. They would go and empty these at their homes and return for more loot.

“Others felt ashamed because we knew them as leaders. We aren’t justifying [the looting] but we understand why they did it.”

He was still grappling with whether he should call what happened an insurrection, a coup or social unrest.

“It was a well-co-ordinated programme … We knew that a mall was going to be attacked from the [WhatsApp] group.”

He and other community leaders had heard of crowds gathering at the mall before the looting occurred. They went there and saw groups of people facing the mall, threatening to attack. This was about 3pm.

The community leaders were outnumbered and called for police assistance.

Only one police van arrived. It was carrying two police officers. Other police officers had been attending to unrest in the Bara section of the township.

“They fired warning shots, but the community charged at them.”

Private security company officials protecting the mall also tried to stop the looters. He alleged they fired live ammunition in a bid to disperse the crowd.

“As leaders we were powerless,” said Makhubela.

He dismissed claims that the police were caught unaware when the unrest erupted, saying intelligence on the ground had been there that trouble of this kind was brewing.

Two days after the looting, Makhubela, other leaders and community members went to the mall for a cleanup operation.

Makhubela said he had wanted to address community members on what they had done and the consequences, but this has not yet happened.

The hearings continue.




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