Partnering in Crisis – The Kwa-Zulu Natal story

This panel discussion was hosted by Shaun Tait, the CEO of The Domino Foundation. In addition to Shaun, the panel comprised three KZN Response team members who shared their experiences following the civil unrest that took place in KZN and Gauteng: Siyabonga Hlatshwayo, provincial coordinator of the South African Red Cross in KZN, Cathy Whittle head of the Disaster Response Unit team and the Nutrition programme at The Domino Foundation and Lindokuhle Khoza who is a social engagement facilitator from Lindbong Development.

The panel talked through some of their experiences and lessons learnt during the recent unrest in KZN.

Setting the scene

Shaun set the scene by reflecting on the eventful month of July with the civil unrest in KZN and kicked off the discussion by asking how the looting and the riots had affected the communities that the panel members and their teams work in.

Siyabonga expanded on the negative impact the unrest had had. The Red Cross had witnessed the looting and destruction of malls and shopping centres where many community members buy their essentials. Arterial roads were blocked which resulted in difficulties in transporting goods between provinces.

“As we were trying to continue to engage the communities, we were concerned about our own safety as well. We didn’t know if we were still accepted in the communities or if we would have access to the communities. It was challenging because many of us have never experienced anything like it,” recalled Siyabonga.

For Cath’s team in the northern parts of KZN, things were really difficult as their beneficiaries had nowhere to go to buy essentials because all the businesses around the taxi and bus ranks and in the townships themselves had been looted.

“Our phones were ringing and people needed help. In a situation like this where we would normally kick into gear offering relief and response, we were stuck because of the fuel shortages and road closures. We were severely impacted and we weren’t sure how long it was going to last,” explained Cath.

The psychosocial effects

Lindokuhle explained that the main products of the unrest were actually mistrust and trauma: “On the one hand there was much frustration, panic, trauma and fear when people’s businesses and outlets were burnt and destroyed in those very same communities that they had chosen to service. On the other hand, there were people who wanted to go and seek refuge in the areas where they work but they couldn’t get there. The problem took on a different nature now because, for those who were on the receiving end of the looting, there was more trauma. Unfortunately, there was added trauma for those from these communities that they were often as ‘leading the looting’. It created a huge mistrust and division in the communities, beyond the effects of the looting and people losing property, jobs and businesses.”

He noted that the initial looting triggered all the past issues that had been brewing under the surface: “If there was a mistrust between Black and White, it arose again. If there was a mistrust between Indian, Black or Coloured, it surfaced. I believe this is because the trauma, frustration and mistrust were the main themes that were spreading across the victims – those who were perceived to be the face of the looting.”

He went on to share a story of a lady from his racially-diverse community. She had witnessed her pharmacy being broken into and looted by people who looked just like her. Sad, frustrated and confused, she couldn’t understand why they were violating her property when she was part of the same community. If they were fighting ‘the system’, why target her?

The main drivers

According to the panel, historical racial tensions and the fears and traumas associated with them were among the main drivers of the civil unrest. Others were the frustrations coming from the extended national lockdowns and the resultant confinement to small spaces. Fear was a ripple-effect driver after the looting had already started.

“One of the things that increased the looting, in my opinion, was people who weren’t initially involved. Once these people saw others starting to take groceries, they were overcome by fear that perhaps, if they didn’t take part in the looting, they might go hungry,” explained Lindokuhle.

Siyabonga added that there was definitely also an element of criminality involved, as there were people who simply took advantage of the situation.

The response

Shaun asked the panel how the nonprofits and faith-based organisations had pulled together and what the KZN Response team had done to help.

Cath explained how, before the height of Covid-19, there were already five non-profits who had been responding to crises and disasters like shack fires, flooding and tornadoes. During Covid-19, they had joined hands again and assisted one another to meet the needs of those affected. So, when the KZN riots happened, these same organisations, who already had a close relationship, simply put on their battle jackets, jumped into the same lane and played to their strengths.

“We realised that starting with a needs-assessment was critical. We’d never assisted with the consequences of civil unrest before, and this was different, volatile and scary. We used a live Google form to collate needs-requests around KZN. Both Siya and Lindo’s teams were going door-to-door. Sean was doing needs-mapping. We were contacting the retailers, looking at the news, and keeping a finger on the pulse of where the fires were and then continuously doing needs-mapping,” recalled Cath.

Shaun emphasised how critical the needs-mapping and assessments had been to get household-survey data to understand if there were medical or trauma-psychosocial needs and then to be able to present that information on a map of key hotspot areas.

Siyabonga explained how the Red Cross in KZN was fortunate to have many volunteers on the ground: “The volunteers were a great link to the communities in terms of mobilising information, doing community assessments, and also identifying the most vulnerable and needy community members to whom we could send food relief.”

During this civil unrest, there was an influx of collaboration. “During this crisis, we worked with a total of about 231 organisations to distribute over 30,000 hampers to service about 107,000 individuals and households across KZN,” said Shaun. “What really was beautiful was corporates and individuals all coming together to collaborate and multiply that story. Thanks to the skills and lessons we had learnt during Covid-19, we could easily replicate and multiply at a much faster rate,” explained Shaun. 

From response to recovery

There was a mass mobilisation of volunteers doing city-wide cleanups with the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Global Shapers around Mandela Day, especially in the hotspot areas that had been affected in KZN.

Cath shared how the aim of the recovery process is now to come alongside entrepreneurs who have lost everything, to ignite hope and to help them get on their feet again. The team is doing this, not only by assisting them in getting their grants and physical items to run their businesses, but also by mentoring these entrepreneurs to help them grow their businesses so that they can eventually employ more people.

The power of teams

Cath further shared about teaming and what stood out in that regard during the unrest: “In a crisis, I’ve learnt that we should play to each other’s strengths. I love that in a team we can pull each other up. Working as a team has allowed us to grow and it’s allowed organisations, corporates and volunteers to jump on board.”

Shaun highlighted that it’s sometimes more effective to partner together and blow wind into the sails of organisations that are already successful in serving in a particular area. “We truly saw an inter-organisational collaboration which turned into one high-impact team working together for a common goal,” said Shaun.

Lessons learnt and looking forward

Lindokuhle mentioned that one of the lessons learnt was that, whether a corporate or an NPO, groups and organisations should not limit themselves their specialisation. Rather, they should allow their specialisation to add value to what others are doing. “There is always a gap where you can bring in a different element that will help produce a cohesive and prosperous nation, which I believe is our collective dream,” he said.

Shaun posed the question: “What does sustainability look like in South Africa going forward?”

Siyabonga replied that sustainability calls for everyone to join hands and play a part. “Somehow, if we are helping individuals, it’s not going to go a long way. But if a community is united, working together, then we ought to see transformation. Communities need to have a role to play in making sure that we are restoring what has been damaged and that there’s provision for needy people. A situation like this is positive and negative at the same time – it brought with it a lot of damage, but it also taught us a lot of lessons and made us do introspection about our strengths and weaknesses. Moving forward, we need to have self-sustainable community-owned programmes or activities such as gardens and farming that can provide essentials for people,” he said.

Lindokuhle added the unrest highlighted the fact that there hasn’t been a lot of effort put into producing quality citizens: “We saw people looting the places where they work, destroying their very livelihoods. We saw people destroying the infrastructure that is actually sustaining them. So, one of our commitments to the collaboration and the teams is that, from our strength as an organisation, we are going to be championing, in partnership with other organisations, a citizens’ education programme. This could be through assessments and workshops where we produce a quality citizen who values every aspect of development. We embrace that South Africa is a diverse society but, when citizens are quality citizens, they are able to make sober decisions, and they’re able to defend their own communities,” he noted.

“None of us operate independently. We’re all part of a larger ecosystem. For me, it’s really that critical understanding of systems-thinking and of how we work together closely with partners. I believe what’s going to be the sustainable impact is how we tap into that collective power, that collective collaboration and systems-thinking, knowing that we are all dependent on each other for the success of each of our programmes,” concluded Shaun.

This panel discussion took place at Nation Builder’s 7th Annual In Good Company conference (September 2021), themed “Light in the Tunnel”.