It’s a magnificent Durban spring morning, all soft light, warm air and a promise of life. The ocean’s visible over what sugarcane remains along the freeway passing Umhlanga.
The blue mass disappears as we head west and move inland towards Phoenix.
My head is elsewhere. I wish, right now, that my body was too. For the first time in my life, I truly despair for us as a nation, don’t see a way out of the mess we are in. The new wave of xenophobic attacks and looting, the violence of men towards women, the fragile economy, the inequality, and the failure of the organs of state to provide services and ensure law and order are symptoms of a twisted, crumbling country.
Rapists, murders and looters do what they want to because the system meant to punish them and deter others from doing the same doesn’t work.
We’re a soft touch for organised crime networks for the same reason. At the same time we don’t have any policy on how to deal with the victims of the heroin epidemic the international crime rings — and our own — are fuelling.
The people running the country are too busy fighting factional battles and raiding the till to deal with the situation, so it’s hard to see how things are going to improve.
We leave the tar road, head onto a dirt track heading into the sugarcane fields. I’m with civic activist Mervin Govender. I met him after the Tongaat Mall, built by ANC-linked businessman Jay Singh, collapsed in 2013. Zwelibanzi Masuku and Zakithi Nxumalo were killed and 29 other workers were injured.
Mervin was at the commission of inquiry and was involved in court applications opposing the sale of council rent-to-buy houses by Singh and other business cats.
The commission sent its findings of culpability on the part of the mall developers to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in 2016. It’s now 2019. Perhaps we’ll get a decision one of these days.
We’re at Hillhead Estate, one of the oldest Tongaat Hulett sugar farms in the area. The company is selling Hillhead and other farms after its former executives allegedly pulled a Steinhoff, overstating profits by several billion rands while giving themselves massive bonuses.
The new bosses have suspended trading in Tongaat shares and called in a forensic auditor and the police. They’ve come up with a turnaround strategy that hangs on selling off their sugarcane farms and focusing on property development. As a result, 5 000 of their 30 000 workers were issued with section 189 retrenchment notices in April.
The first wave of workers are going at the end of the month. Hillhead staff are on the list. Not only are they being retrenched, they also have to be out of the company’s two-roomed family houses, as do the workers in the single quarters across the hill from them, by September 30.
Most of the redbrick houses are still occupied. A few are broken down. The damage looks like it predates Tongaat’s current corporate governance issues. Perhaps the company already had Hillhead earmarked for sale before the crash.
The estate, home to 37 families, is right next to the Cornubia mall and in the centre of a hub of commercial and residential developments. Last year, the company applied to have it rezoned by the eThekwini municipality for general industrial use last year — before the alleged fraud scandal was discovered.
The workers are scared to talk. They’ve been retrenched, but they don’t have their severance packages. There’s also a chance that a new owner might need labour, so nobody wants to be branded as a troublemaker.
Mervin grew up with most of them. His granddad also worked for Tongaat and lived at Blackburn Estate, just up the road from Hillhead. Blackburn’s already been sold.
Mervin convinces the workers that I won’t use their names. They relax a bit and start talking.
They’re desperate. They earn between R3 500 and R5 000 a month. They don’t pay for rent, water and electricity, so they can survive on this. None have savings or pensions that can allow them to pay rent somewhere else. Unlike the migrant workers in the single quarters, they can’t go back to the Eastern Cape. Their only option is the street, or the shack settlement across the freeway from Hillhead.
Then one of their phones goes off. It’s management, wanting him in the office. Now.
He shrugs and heads off. His colleagues disappear. So do we. It’s clear that the lahnees have spotted us, want to know what’s going on. It’s time to move, before security arrives. These people have enough problems to deal with, without us making things any worse for them.