Khaya Koko, who lives in Katlehong township, writes about how he and other residents of Zone 3 and Zone 4 devised a plan of action to protect their area
As carnage raged around them, with six shopping centres in the township pillaged by marauding looters, Katlehong’s mothers lovingly cooked for their sons, who were standing guard to protect the last untouched complex.
It had become apparent on Sunday evening, July 11, that the violence, which had begun in KwaZulu-Natal the previous day, would spread to Gauteng. Residents of Zone 3 and Zone 4 in Katlehong banded together to protect the Motse wa Lijane centre.
The centre is now affectionately called “The Last Complex Standing”.
The plan involved closing all entry and exit points to Hlahatsi, Phake, Phooko, Mopeli and Motsamai, the sections that lead to the Motse wa Lijane centre. Men set up posts and a 24-hour watch. They turned back cars if the residents did not know the occupants.
The watch began at the start of an extremely cold week, with temperatures plummeting to below freezing point at night, and so wood fires were stoked and old tyres burnt to keep the more than 200 men warm and ready for an invasion at any time.
This turned out to be a necessary plan because, the next day, metaphorical hell broke out in Katlehong, Gauteng’s Ekurhuleni metro. It started at the Letsoho shopping centre and ended with a blaze and dead bodies at Chris Hani Mall, on the border with Vosloorus.
The bodies were shown on the country’s 24-hour news channels. They are among the 117 people who, as of Thursday evening, had died during the violence and looting in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, according to the government and the police.
Other malls and centres gutted in Katlehong are Sam Ntuli, Enoch Sontonga, Gamaphuteng and Kit-Kat Centre.
Unlike some other areas, where efforts to guard properties and neighbourhoods have been marred with reported violent clashes, not a single drop of blood has been spilled during the patrols in the part of Katlehong where I live, despite intense provocation.
On Monday afternoon, a large crowd of people, some riding in bakkies and firing guns without a care for children playing in the street, approached the bridge and railway line that divides the township in an attempt to destroy not only the Motse wa Lijane centre, but other property as well.
It was an early test of whether the protection plan devised the previous evening would work. Because large rocks had been placed on the road, the invaders could not drive towards us, but we could approach them because we knew where we had opened up the roads.
The attempted invasion was foiled. A loud cheer rang out, with elders coming to us and thanking the teams for protecting them.
This sparked collective action, with mothers and sisters opening up their kitchens and collecting the little food available to give us sustenance as we warded off attacks on our generally peaceful way of life.
“You are our children; you are protecting us. The least we can do is feed you and give you a steady stream of warm beverages,” said 57-year-old Talion Molokomme, a leader of the “catering department”.
“We don’t have much, as you know, but the little that we have, we will all share and make sure that your bodies and spirits are fit.”
The “department” provided three meals a day, as well as tea, coffee and a delicious thick soup to all the “soldiers” on the front line.
But why would men risk their lives to protect businesses owned by the dastardly “white monopoly capital”? The Motse wa Lijane centre boasts a Shoprite supermarket as its anchor tenant and five banks, as well as several small businesses. According to the warped contention of pseudo-revolutionaries, the protection of The Last Complex Standing displays our inferiority complexes, and entrenches our position as the proverbial “house niggers” doing our slave masters’ bidding.
What the flea market Guevaras and Angela Davises do not consider is that outside every township mall and shopping complex, there are dozens of informal traders who feed their families and educate their children, thanks to the foot traffic that is generated by the centres.
In our neighbourhood, there is a roughly 5km radius of stalls selling everything from food to household appliances and other wares. Should the complex be destroyed, the traffic goes with it, leading to incomes being lost.
Yes, there have been failures in reforming South Africa’s economy in the 27 years of democracy, with greedy capitalists shipping profits offshore while maintaining their apartheid-era economic structure, which allowed them to benefit from cheap labour.
Katlehong was one of thousands of townships dotted around the country that the apartheid regime intended to be a reservoir of cheap labour and mental slavery.
Katlehong, Thokoza and Vosloorus, known by the portmanteau “Kathorus”, were the townships that experienced extreme political violence in the early 1990s. Between 2 000 and 3 000 lives were claimed, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
I was a child during that era, and the explosions and continuous rattle of guns at night will forever be etched in my memory.
But none of us are politicians. We are trying to make the best of the terrible hand we have been dealt, while so-called intellectual ideologues tweet up a storm in their middle-class and rich neighbourhoods about how stupid those defending their communities are.
We are grateful that the police and the defence force have, as of Wednesday afternoon, arrived to give us much-needed support.
The Mail & Guardian reported that this week’s violence was a well-orchestrated plan of economic sabotage, which has an even more ominous phase two to it. Vigilance, therefore, is nothing but a life-saving option for us right now.
As we head to our posts for the evening shift in the blistering evening cold, clutching cups of hot soup prepared by our mothers and sisters, we do so with the knowledge that our political leaders have failed to change our material conditions.
But that violence, looting and destruction of our homes and livelihoods cannot be the answer.