‘How will I take care of my children?’: Car dealership owner among business owners counting the costs of riots

A burnt car in Jules Street, Malvern, after violent protests and looting swept through parts of Johannesburg and Durban.
A burnt car in Jules Street, Malvern, after violent protests and looting swept through parts of Johannesburg and Durban.

After losing 53 cars during xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2019, Johannesburg car dealership owner Okey Uchendu never thought he would see his business destroyed again by civil unrest in less than two years.

Already dealing with the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, Uchendu received a call at midnight on Sunday that his dealership was engulfed in flames as looting and violence, the worst in SA for years, escalated, wrecking hundreds of businesses.

“I'm speechless,” the 45-year old told Reuters on Wednesday standing next to 58 burnt cars. “I feel like committing suicide because my livelihood has been taken away from me. I was sitting crying, helpless because I can't do anything.”

Among the severely burnt cars was an unrecognisable second hand Range Rover Evoque worth R220,000, which stood alongside low to high-end cars.

“All these things are gone. I don't even know where to start because how will I start. I still need to pay my rent, I've got three children I need to take care of, how will I take care of my children?," the visibly emotional Uchendu said.

Triggered by the jailing of ex-president Jacob Zuma last week after he failed to appear at a corruption inquiry, the unrest has widened into an outpouring of anger over poverty and inequality.

Many of South Africa's small, medium-sized and micro enterprises (SMME) are not insured, compounding any attempts of recovery of those damaged in the unrest.

“We small businesses, nobody wants to insure us here in Jules (street), it's a high risk area. When you call insurance (companies) they say no this is a high risk area,” he said of his business that employed 16 people.

A survey done by the Small Business Institute (SBI), revealed last year that as many as 55,000 SMMEs may not make it through the Covid-19 pandemic. With the unrest, the number was expected to rise, SBI CEO John Dludlu told Reuters.

More than 200 malls have been looted or destroyed and over 600 stores burnt or damaged thus far, the SA Property Owners Association said on Wednesday.

The liquor industry said more than 200 liquor shops have been looted in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, which are the most affected by the unrest.

Bigger businesses like clothing retailer Mr Price were forced to temporarily shut hundreds of stores after being entirely looted, with some malls also shutting their doors.

“Investing in this particular property here, in this area, I'm out, I'm done,” Uchendu said.