Johannesburg – South Africa’s Human Rights Commission opened hearings on Monday into the July riots that left 354 dead, warning the unrest had worsened poverty and hunger in parts of the country.
The hearings were taking place outside of Durban, an important port city in KwaZulu-Natal province, that suffered the brunt of the violence.
The riots began when former president Jacob Zuma, whose base of support is in KwaZulu-Natal, was sent to prison for refusing to testify in corruption proceedings against him.
But the initial protests degenerated into looting that spread to Johannesburg, in a show of discontent with South Africa’s gaping divide between rich and poor.
The slow response by police prompted some residents to resort to vigilantism.
The first witness, Zama Nguse, said that was how her 17-year-old nephew Sibahle was killed.
She said businesspeople in Durban, angry at the looting of their shops, set fire to shacks and shot at people in her community — including her nephew.
“People were trying to get to a place of safety because teargas fired by private security had been thrown into their homes,” she told the commission.
“Sibahle wasn’t aware in (what) direction we ran and was looking for us. A man later told me Sibahle had been shot,” she said.
“When I got up to the area where he was last seen, I found his siblings holding him. I had never seen a person dying before — when I saw him, it looked like he was gasping for air.”
The hearings are expected to run through December 3.
The aim is to determine the causes of the unrest, lapses by police, the role of private security companies, and alleged racial motivations to some of the killings.
“The unrest was characterised by the loss of life, the targeting of retail centres, malls, shops and other businesses, schools as well as transport systems,” the commission said in a statement.
“The unrest accordingly exacerbated, amongst other things, inequality between certain communities, unemployment levels, poverty, hunger and food insecurity.”
The commission said damage from the riots totalled at least R25 billion (1.6 billion dollars, 1.4 billion euros).
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