Johannesburg, South Africa – As teenagers, Thabani and Thobani Mlwando would wake up in their two-room house before dawn every day to help their mother cultivate yams and sweet potatoes that she would sell in town.
They lived from hand to mouth and on a rare good day, she would make just 200 South African rand ($14).
Born just three minutes apart, with Thabani being the oldest, the Mlwando twins were inseparable.
“They were best friends. You could not tell one a secret without the other knowing about it,” said their aunt, Welile Ntima, who helped their single mother raise the twin boys.
Laughing through her tears, she said, “Thabani took his role as the older twin brother very seriously.”
The night after the arrest of former South Africa President Jacob Zuma, protests resulting in looting, riots and violence engulfed parts of his home province, KwaZulu-Natal.
On July 8, about 8pm, Thabani, 23, his twin brother, and a group of their friends heard about the free-for-all at a local grocery that was being looted in Pinetown, where one of them worked as a car guard, and decided to walk there.
The men stood at the entrance of the store, astonished by the chaotic scenes of people grabbing food and appliances for free and running out unabated.
Thabani picked up a bottle of cold drink from the floor but when he looked up, his brother and his friends had ventured into the mayhem.
Just after midnight, the group returned to their residence covered in blood, distraught, and frantic – without him.
Thabani had been shot and killed.
Looking for answers
His aunt, still reeling from the loss, said, “We don’t know what really happened to him. We are still looking for answers. People are saying it was the shop’s security guards because he was stealing. We are poor, but I would have even prostitute myself to pay his bail. Why kill our child?”
At least 200 people have been killed during the widespread unrest that lasted nine days.
The devastation felt by families and communities, who have lost children as young as 14 years of age, is felt all over the country.
Sino Ngema, a community activist who joined a volunteer clean-up crew at the Pinetown grocery store, said: “I can’t believe that a young man lost his life here over a bottle of cold drink, over a mere 20 rand ($1.40). Another boy who was shot in Alexandra was just standing near the mall. It’s just not fair.”
As the government struggles to reach a consensus about what caused the civil unrest, community leaders have blamed poverty, gross inequality and rising unemployment.
Thapelo Mohapi of Abahlali baseMjondolo, the largest civil organisation of the poor in post-apartheid South Africa, said, “We have always said that people’s anger will go in many directions. We know that people saw an opportunity to avoid going to bed hungry and they took it.”
He continued, “If you look closely, the people that have been arrested for looting are people that have lost jobs, live in poverty and are hungry.”
About 2,500 people have reportedly been arrested for charges ranging from damage to property, theft and robbery in relation to the riots.
The civil unrest had mostly hit communities that are rife with informal settlements, inadequate housing and inhumane living conditions.
Mohapi alluded to this being a clear indication of the problem.
“The pandemic requires one to wash their hands and be clean, yet there are numerous communities in townships and informal settlements with one communal toilet, one water pipe and no electricity,” he said.
South Africa experienced three waves of the coronavirus.
In May 2020, during the first lockdown, the South African government implemented a 350 rand ($24) social relief grant for unemployed citizens and refugees.
In April 2021, the government ended the grant, saying it could no longer afford it, causing devastation for many.
Mohapi said this is just one example of many ways the government continues to fail and forget the marginalised.
“After all the hard lockdowns, the poorest of the poor have been affected the most,” he said.
“There’s no question that these protests are a result of the socioeconomic conditions of this country. This will not be the last time that something like this happens.”
Environmental activist and sociology scholar Mpho Ndaba shared similar sentiments.
“The national lockdown highlighted the extent to which a majority of Black people suffer from poverty, unemployment and lack of access to food and adequate nutrition in South Africa,” Ndaba said.
“So, while we can acknowledge the political opportunism of some [protests], we must also account for the fact that people are hungry and lack access to basic needs.”
On July 13, a video of a young boy coming back from a mall with a bag from a clothing retailer went viral on social media.
The soft-spoken child from the Township of Vosloorus, Johannesburg, had taken socks, a pack of underwear, a pair of shoes and clothes.
South Africans rallied together to find him, and a family friend quickly organised a fundraiser that has garnered more than 50,000 rand ($3,430).
Thandi Makhosi, 34, an unemployed mother of three who said she donated 200 rand ($14), said, “I don’t have much but no child should ever be exposed to such violence over basic needs. It broke my heart. He could’ve been killed.”
Kayla Forster, 28, an accountant who donated 1,000 rand ($69), said that reality truly set in for her about the nature of these protests when she saw the video.
“He took the things he needed. That mall is huge, he could have taken anything,” she said.
“Then we talk about poverty like it’s normal. It is egregious that people live in these horrible conditions. I’m embarrassed by this government.”
Ndaba insisted things cannot go back to normal.
“The notion of ‘rebuilding SA’ (a term popularised by the president since the riots), simply means returning to the status quo where poor Black people remain in precarious positions,” he said.
“We need a new ‘normal’ that includes critical structural interventions.”