Each day we take for granted. Like it’s owed to us. Each morning that we wake up, we aren’t surprised and often don’t give it a second thought what a blessing it is to be able to draw in a breath, hear the birds and see the sky. We sigh as we try to think up dinner, put off going to the shops because we don’t feel like queuing and wearing a mask or moan about how cold we are while we sit in a warm bed with an electric blanket. A week ago, this was me.
Sunday, 11th July
I woke up with a sinking feeling. We were back to trying to figure out how to go about lockdown Level 4. Back to this whole back-and-forth of whether we would see family. The ache and guilt of not seeing them tore at my mind. I couldn’t bear the thought of those conversations again – conversations I thought I would not have to have again. We went to do Zoom church from my parents’ house. The whole day, I kept thinking how this might be the last time we eat a meal in their house for the unforeseeable future. I couldn’t bring myself to say anything! It coloured my day. Little did I know that 24 hours later, it would be the last of my worries!
Monday, 12th July
I’ll never forget this date. I woke up that morning dreading the conversation I was about to have with my dad as we decided to stay away from family. I sat in tears at the kitchen table, explaining our side and thinking that would be the last time I’d see him that week. Just before he left, I opened a message on my phone. The video footage of a local shopping centre I loved billowing with smoke would have gone viral before the end of the day – the main shop would be completely destroyed. I was disgusted.
I vaguely knew all this started because of our ex-president’s incarceration. A voice note had also been sent the previous day warning us to stay home. This had happened before on occasion and nothing had ever materialised. I paid no attention to it. As the morning progressed, other news filtered through. Our local Spar closed for the first time in my living memory amid protest threats. At that point, I became a little nervous. We had nothing left in our fridge other than a bottle of milk, one apple, garlic and some bread – we’d have to make do until the next day. I walked downstairs and met my husband in the kitchen. I knew why he was home from work early. We chatted about the shopping centre. He went upstairs for a meeting while I made the girls tea. It was around 10am. The girls wandered outside into the sunshine. I followed. And that’s when it happened. A noise that I’d only heard a handful of times. One, two, three, four, five, six gunshots sounded in quick succession. I hurried my children inside for fear of whoever was out there coming into our road. Our house borders a forest. The road runs adjacent to our fence line. We are high up and anyone from across the valley or down the long winding forest path looks directly into our bedroom window. So I nervously checked out the window from time to time. There was nothing. Not long after, we received a video of a mob of about 20 guys on foot being escorted back to their homes by a security group. The view was from our shopping centre and the entrance to the shop was blocked and several security vehicles and some police cars.
As the day progressed, it became evident that we needed to stay at home. This was the first time it felt like there was a real threat. We received messages that a mob was on the way up the hill. I kept checking the road in the distance, fearing they’d soon appear over the horizon. Praise the Lord, they never came! A lower grade nausea hung over me. And, for the first time in my living memory, I didn’t want to eat. I wasn’t hungry at all. It was a good thing. I soon realised that the shops may be closed for a while. By the time evening came, I was a nervous wreck! My phone vibrated every few minutes. And news began filtering through about the looting in town. We just kept getting names of shops that were being trashed. Many men in our little town had a meeting in the shopping centre’s parking lot to decide how to protect our little town and our shopping centre. By this stage, all surrounding towns and cities had been hit. We were the only ones untouched. We were a target.
By 4:30, we received news that our town was going into lockdown overnight. As of 5pm, all entrances would be blocked and no one would come in or out. All men with guns were called to arms and posted at various points, blocking the roads with big vehicles and questioning every single car attempting to enter or leave. I was afraid that it had come to this. And I honestly expected a shootout on the road.
We live in an affluent, mainly white area. And the road up the hill was was where black would meet white. Poverty meet privilege. Men on foot vs men in trucks. And suddenly, it felt as though we had gone back 30 years. White men with guns and money. Black men who had most probably only owned little throughout their lives. It felt like war was about to break out.
I barely ate the whole day. I have never not been hungry when I’ve had very little too eat. But, on that day, my stomach was in a hard knot! I was too afraid to sleep that night. I wanted my children in my room. My daughters have big windows that look onto the road and all I could picture was stray bullets shattering the glass. But my husband wisely said we should keep things as normal as possible. The president addressed the nation and warned that the violence should not continue. As the evening wore on, there was notifications of a fire starting close by. I opened the curtains and saw the orange glow. The wind was howling. My phone was still going mad later that night nearing 11pm.
The wind woke both our girls and they both ended up on the floor in our room – I was relieved. I woke up every hour that night. All I could picture was my empty fridge. We had enough for one more breakfast. Maybe bread after that but that was all. No veggies for supper the next night. No fruit for my kids. I wondered how we were going to eat unless we went to shop in someone’s pantry. We had already gone to my mom-in-law for some boxes of long-life milk.
Tuesday, 13th July
I woke up the next day, despite feeling shattered from my fitful night, feeling relieved we were still OK. I spent most of the day on my phone again, watching the horror that unfolded around us and convinced the city a few short minutes away from us was pretty much gone. We watched footage from mass looting the night before as the centre of the city became a busy hub of activity in the middle of the night. Friends from the other side of town told us that gunfire became background noise both day and night. If shopping centres hadn’t already been looted or destroyed, there were imminent attacks planned. The police service was stretched beyond capacity. Civilians had taken it upon themselves to guard local shopping centres. They stood on watch in numbers, some armed.
I did nothing productive but lay in my bed, too mentally spent to move. Later on in the day, I was added to yet another group. And I panicked. It was an evacuation plan for our town, still untouched. Should things go south that day, we all planned to meet in a local school hall. That finished me!
I had watched people pack in case of evacuation on social media. And now, I told my husband I was going to do the same. There was no way we could gather all we needed in time to make a fast getaway! As I went through cupboards and selected a few clothing items, I began to fear the worst. There were rumours circulating that homes may become a target. We have 100m of electric fencing at the bottom of our property. We live on the border of a forest – an easy target. A way to get past the road blocks. And lots of trees for cover. Not to mention, that should a fire be started in the veld or trees, our house was in it’s path. If the trees caught fire, they’d land up on our front lawn. As I packed, I felt fear like I’d never felt before. I started to mentally prepare to leave the house, not knowing how we would find it when we returned. Visions of it being burnt or looted played over and over.
You know that humorous question people ask,
If your house was burning, what one thing would you take?
I was living that reality. I found myself putting aside photos, warm and cool clothes, shoes, medicine box and our life file containing our marriage certificate, birth certificates, our wills and our ID’s.
Downstairs, I packed fruit, peanut butter and some other staples in case we were stuck in a school hall with a couple of hundred people and had no food to feed whining children. I put the gas aside in case we needed something to cook on. Word was our electricity and water supply would be targeted next and, frankly, I had no doubt this would happen because it’s happened before!
That night, a farmer brought 1600 litres of milk to our village and gave it away free to anyone who brought bottles. My husband dashed out and stood in a queue as the light of day disappeared to get some milk.
That night, I cooked a basic meal. No one in our town had access to fresh veggies. We had mash, wors and butternut. I remember eating less than I normally would that night. I scraped the little the kids didn’t eat onto a plate, not wanting to waste a scrap of food. I took my kiddies to bed that night and thought of something I read during the Gaza attacks. A mom had said she wanted her family to sleep in the same room so that if they died, they would die together and no one would be left behind. Fear gripped me. I lay down next to them, sure that at some point during the night, we’d be evacuated. I wondered when I’d next lie down next to them in their beds and sing to them. I consciously treasured the moment. I had wanted them to be in our room that night but my husband told me that we should continue as normal.
“One shot,” I said, “One shot and they’re in our room!”
Wednesday, 14th July
I woke up and went to my parents’ house to shop their pantry. We had nothing but bread for breakfast. And that’s what we had for lunch too. I came home with half a dozen eggs, a block of butter, some fruit and Weetbix. I also came home with advice to stay off my phone so I didn’t give in to fear that paralysed me from being online. When I got home, I decided to save the eggs for my hubby as he had no rice cakes, no gluten-free oats and no porridge. Eggs were his only option. That left Weetbix for the girls. I was sure they were going to turn up their noses. I prepped them ahead of time telling them that this was their only option. Well, blow me down, they loved it! And I truly saw that as act of God!
That day, they were the hungriest they had been in my memory, asking for food every hour or two. And, for the first time, I had to limit them severely, telling them that we did not know when we’d next have access to the shops. That day, pop up shops started happening. A man popped past to collect some bread flour from me as I had plenty. He offered to get my some eggs in return. Less than an hour later, he brought me some eggs. I thanked him and he blew a kiss in my direction as he left. My heart warmed. The community was pulling together.
That morning, I hit roadblocks for the first time. I was stopped and questioned by men, all very friendly, as to where I was going. Then I saw them. Lots of men with rifles slung over their shoulders. It was surreal. People in my community with guns loaded, watching. I had picked up my mom and we went to a field close by. People were selling things out of the back of bakkies and vans. Milk was in the back of a car. Toilet paper came out the back of a van. And people just trusted that you would EFT. I dropped my mom at the local fresh produce store. The line went across the parking lot. A guy at the entrance was selling cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower out of the back of his bakkie. I got for myself and a few others. I left my mom to stand in the queue and my sister and I set off elsewhere. When we came back she was near the front. We bought only what we needed. It had become apparent that our community would not run out of milk anytime soon. Farmers had been giving it out a day ago because they just couldn’t get it to the shops because the main highway from Jo’burg to Durban was closed. It also became apparent that we would have fresh veggies and bread. Staples might be unavailable but I wasn’t in such a panic anymore.
When I arrived home and walked into the kitchen, there was a full tray of eggs on my counter. The man had brought more. My mom had also bought me a tray. My neighbour called. She had a box of fresh veg for me. I went to the fence and she passed over veggies I hadn’t eaten in months like cherry tomatoes and peppers. As I stuffed all the produce into my fridge, I cried. My fridge hadn’t been this full in at least 6 months. We had more than we needed. And for the first time, I was able to share with others. God was good!
That night, I cooked dinner and we sat down to eat. As I tasted fresh farm vegetables, I was overcome with emotion! Through tears, I said to my husband that food had never tasted so good in all my life! I didn’t think we would eat this well for weeks!
Thursday, 15th July
For the first time that week, I woke up feeling motivated. It felt as though things could be normal again. It was the first day I felt hope that life could and would carry on, even sooner than we thought! I spent the day out, trying to get fresh food and vegetables for family and friends. The first place I went was to a pop up shop. Oddly, I was sent a different direction – into the lower parking of our shopping centre. People were parking along the road on my way in and walking. Not sure what was up, I parked my car in the quickly filling parking lot and got out my car. I asked another lady if the shop was open and she didn’t know either. On my way up, I saw my best friend. We walked together to find a long line snaking across the parking lot.
Within minutes, it had almost tripled in length! We spoke about the events of the past few days and she shed some light on a different side of the story. She lived near the township close to our community – the one we had heard the threats were coming from. There was very little activity and nothing to be worried about. In fact, many of the people from the township shopped at our shopping centre and were too scared to come through the road blocks for fear of being turned away.
We stood in the line for two and a half hours. There was such a festive vibe. Covid and social distancing was forgotten. And, as careful as I am, it was such a relief. In moments of need, it was refreshing to remember what was important – human relationships. If it had come to it, in order to protect ourselves, we would have all jammed into a school hall together. And even then, Covid would not have been at the forefront of our minds.
While we stood in the queue, we were moved out of the road. To my immense joy, three taxis drove in. The taxi association had joined us to stand against looters and protect our shopping centre! May this be the beginning of bridging the divide!
We were nearing the front now when a woman with a keyboard squeezed between people and set herself up in the quad outside the shop!
“Good morning!” she shouted.
Then she told us she was going to sing songs of hope. And that is exactly what she did. She started with It is Well with my Soul.
What inspiring hope I was filled with!
We were allowed 15 items. The shelves were emptying fast of perishable goods such as rice, flour and yeast. Nappies were in short supply and so was toilet paper. I got what we needed and left, encouraged to see how many people chose to get maize meal as one of their 15 items to pass on to someone in need.
Friday, 16th June
While the rest of the country celebrated Youth Day, we celebrated and even cried when we received videos of trucks carrying food and fuel on the N3 that had been reopened for the first time in 5 days. We were moved to tears of videos of every race and age meeting on the streets of cities and cleaning up. The carnage was indescribable. Burnt out cars. Abandoned cars. Streets knee deep in boxes, rubbish and looted items. Shops were scorched shells.
But the beauty of all South Africans from children and the handicapped to black and white, holding hands to rebuild and restore was beyond moving.
Credit: One Life Church
In those moments, the whispered doubts of whether to stay in SA from earlier in the week evaporated.
I knew this was right where I wanted to be. In this land. With these beautiful people. Holding hands. Together. To rebuild and restore.
“If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will heal their land.”
2 Chronicles 7:14
Photo Credit: I took this picture in our local Spar on my second tripTags: burn, evacuate, fear, food, KwaZulu-Natal, KZN, looting, rebuild, restore, riots, road block, shops, south africa