‘The SA taxi industry is a force to be reckoned with’ – James Martin on how it stood up during riots

Written on 07/20/2021
Nadya Swart

James Martin describes the power harnessed by the taxi industry to protect and defend the businesses in and around Pietermaritzburg.

As the Head of Department for Economic Development at the uMgungundlovu District, the devastation that swept through Pietermaritzburg and its surrounds last week was even more acutely felt by James Martin than most. Describing the wreckage, Martin says the looted shops are now ‘black shells of nothing.’ Of particular significance is the way in which Martin describes the power harnessed by the taxi industry to protect and defend the businesses in and around Pietermaritzburg. An uplifting, albeit surprising, shift in perspective of the taxi industry. Martin explains that there is a new layer of skills coming through across the South African taxi industry landscape, and that alongside this rising level of business acumen – there is a responsibility in the commercial environment. – Nadya Swart

James Martin on his position as Head of Department for Economic Development at the uMngungundlovu District: 

The position I hold is looking at the economy of the KZN Midlands and combining it with the way we do our town planning. So it’s to stimulate investment to make sure we retain whatever enterprises we have and to plan our towns and cities in and around the Midlands in a way that supports investment and economic activity.

On the hurricane that hit KwaZulu-Natal last week:

It’s a bitter pill to swallow. During those days we woke up thinking, hoping it was a dream – and it wasn’t, it was reality. We’re busy picking up the pieces now. And yes, I’d like to say that there’s a buzz around at the moment. I think people are just edging to get back and to get cracking and [to] start earning their salaries and start trading again.

On the damage that’s been done to Pietermaritzburg and the surrounding district:

Well, we do have the statistics. I don’t have them at my fingertips. But I can say that each town except Camperdown in this district was damaged severely. Richmond was almost flattened. The area to the east of Pietermaritzburg, there are smaller towns there – the businesses were almost flattened. In Howick, it’s a town most people may have heard of, we’re estimating [that] around 40 businesses have been looted. Some have been burnt. Mooi River on the freeway, obviously, a number of businesses there have also [been damaged].

And then in Pietermaritzburg itself, a couple of major shopping centers, especially in the black townships, were destroyed and burnt to the ground – with, I think, only four shopping centers still standing out of, I estimate, probably double that number. So the center of town itself, I went through during the days of the treachery, and it was a war zone. Your car couldn’t drive through the streets because of the rubbish and the debris on the roads. And people were loitering, scavenging through whatever was left. It really was a war zone at the time. I’m happy to say today driving through it – it’s obviously been cleaned up and it’s safe and there’s police presence. And there is a sense of calm that’s returned.

But you can’t help noticing the destruction and the looted massive furniture shops that are now just… They’ve been burnt. There’s no other way to describe it. They’re black shells of nothing. So, yeah, I think it’s hit everybody in the solar plexus, especially from a business point of view. Some of them feel they can bounce back. Some of them feel that it’s a bridge too far now to come back.

On whether businesses that were planning to expand will now be doing the opposite:

Well, yes and no. I think what’s happened is [that] the removal of some businesses has created a vacuum for others. I think those who are fast on their feet, those who – obviously food is the first point of call – I think those who can move quickly, can supply food to the rural areas – where previously there was a shopping center – are going to flourish under the circumstances. It may see a shift in who supplies food to our communities going forward. And my suspicion is it may also be a number of foreign nationals because they are dominating that informal food chain right now.

So, you know, for a lot [of businesses] the insurance companies will have to kick in and pick up the slack for them. But for the most part, I think there’s no way around the damage that it has done – no matter what business you’ve had. It has hit you fairly on the jaw. And coming back is going to be quite a climb. And like I said, for some businesses – they just can’t carry that.

On the debate around whether it was just thuggery or whether it was orchestrated:

I have to be careful how I answer. Obviously I’m not speaking on behalf of government. I’m not a spokesperson for government. I think I’m just giving an opinion, which is my personal opinion. I think when this started and we let what we thought was a puppy dog out of a cage, I don’t think we realised it was a kraken. It was something that, once the floodgates had opened, would be hard to squash – judging by how easily a shop can be looted. For most of us, it’s something that never occurred to us. But I think it is something that can happen – physically really easily. You open the door and you take out what you need to. That’s how simple it is. It’s easier than shopping if you look at it like that.

I do want to say from my vantage point and we headed up, I’m the deputy chair of the security forum in the northern part of town, we had over 300 civilians of all cultures patrolling 24/7. Some of them armed, some of them weren’t. But we had the fires going at night and, I would say with some confidence, we were part of the team that defended the malls. And scouts would come around into the area looking to see what sort of barricades we had in place, and then they would go back and report to whoever they were reporting to. But I think, and again, I don’t want to say too much out of place, but there were pockets of gangs who were spearheading this looting. And it’s hard to say their origin or their mandate – if they even had one. But there was a group of people who would spearhead this. They would open the doors, they would start the fires, and they’d be followed by a mass of willing and hungry people.

So even they, I don’t think, realised how much momentum they would carry behind them once they opened those doors to these shops. You know, you can call it political – and I’m not saying it is by any means – but it was thuggery. And I think, to the average person that you would stop on the street now of Pietermaritzburg, they would call it treachery to some degree of all cultures. There is this feeling that we’ve let ourselves down, that it’s been a poor show and there’s possibly some embarrassment around the degree to which it’s taken how we’re viewed around the world.

Whether there are stories of companies that managed to ward off the looters:

Well, I have heard from a reliable source that the Checkers’ distribution centre; [they] flew down their own guards from Johannesburg, put them in a helicopter from King Shaka Airport to the rooftop of their distribution centre where they were holding a substantial amount of stock. And I think that’s been our saving grace. The other distribution centres weren’t so lucky. They were caught napping, but Checkers were proactive and they managed to do that.

In and around Maritzburg, the Muslim community were quite effective, they have huge interests in this town and they’ve been very active in defending their assets. So, yeah, there are a number of cases on the side of town where there is a lot of Muslim trade, a lot of factories where they have, and in fact, driving through the center of town during those days, you almost couldn’t get through town. The barricades were so intense. I don’t want to call them mercenaries, but I don’t think they were local Sunday school teachers protecting our streets.

On the Muslim communities and other unexpected communities stepping up to the plate:

That’s true. And you know, when I first started this – I mean I feel like this is a family meeting, I feel I can talk freely – there was some suspicion around ‘why are these whites being so defensive and barricading in a democratic society?’ But as things got more and more intense, we found Zulu’s joining us, coloureds – you know, we had the whole spectrum coming on board realising that that kraken we let out the cage – we didn’t know where it would stop. But if I could say [that] there’s a consequence to what we’re saying that was unforeseen, that possibly has a negative side to it in the more rural towns; the traders, again, many of whom are Muslim, together with the commercial farmers have been protecting the towns, and in some cases stopped access into towns. And in some cases, that’s been the saving grace of the commercial activity in that town.

I know we will as a species be able to bounce back, and I don’t think there will be hunger, as we initially thought. But what’s happened is [that] the whites, the commercial farmers and the Muslim traders, have barricaded rural towns and it’s been seen as something through racial eyes. So there are some towns in the outlying areas where damage control is probably the wrong word, but we’re having to go in and say, ‘Guys, drop the racial card. It wasn’t whites and coloureds and Indians stopping you walking through a democratic street. It was saving your business. And can we please try and not play the race card?’ So there were a couple of municipalities where these echoes have been sounding. But I think government is doing whatever they can to try and just nullify those voices because it is of some concern.

On Pietermaritzburg having been flattened in the absence of government aid / army:

It’s hard to read what’s on the street. My sense – being on the ground – is inclining towards a stable future, certainly for the short to medium term. I would like to say that the taxi industry has played a huge role in bringing calm to our waters. And will continue to do so. I think without their assurance in bringing stability at a provincial level, I wouldn’t be speaking as confidently as I am. Also, I think that people have realised how this has damaged people’s livelihoods going forward. I think that there’s a sense of calm that has returned. Like I said in the beginning; looting a shop – we’ve all realised how easy it is. We all thought it was something that could never be done. But just looking at how easy it was to walk in and carry out a big screen and load it up into your Mercedes – it’s almost miraculous that you can shop so easily. Unfortunately.

This morning I went into the office. People are trading, people are walking on the streets. I didn’t see a police person. I didn’t see a SANDF person. People were going about their business. And, I have permission to say on behalf of the taxi industry, although I’m not their spokesperson, that they are manning the situation very, very carefully and they have shown real solidarity towards stabilising. They’ve had meetings in the outlying towns. They’ve been giving businesses assurance in and around this city to the outlying towns, to the association, through the structures to say that this will not happen again under their watch. And they are a force to be reckoned with. I mean, they are a very, very powerful and very structured army of highly intelligent and decent guys who have taken the law, not the law into their hands, but they have put a firm grip on people’s movements and what’s happening, especially in the townships from where a lot of these people have been coming.

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