News analysis

Looting lockdown laws South Africa
(Photo by Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd)
  • Only in shrinking parts of KwaZulu-Natal are they unable to get food to consumers, major chains and some independent retailers say.
  • Where stores are open, panic buying is an occasional problem, but such shortages are quickly resolved.
  • Bakeries have sufficient supplies for now, there is frozen food at depots, and tinned food is stacked high.
  • Road freighters are worried about routes remaining open – and the state's intelligence capability necessary to keep them open.
  • Poorer communities, with retailers that depend on nearby wholesalers, will likely see the worst and longest trouble.
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In parts of KwaZulu-Natal, shelves are either empty of key food products or stores are not open at all – in some cases because they are burnt-out husks. On Thursday there were long lines at open stores, with residents in Durban, Pietermaritzburg, and surrounding areas reporting it either impossible or very hard to find enough food on sale to see their families through the day. 

But even in that province hardest hit by looting, the areas affected by shortages are shrinking, retailers said on Thursday, as they dispatch trucks from other provinces, and find routes around areas still considered dangerous.

Meanwhile there are no shortages in any other part of the country, and currently no prospect of shortages anywhere other than parts of Gauteng, for reasons that are exasperating retailers.

"If people in Joburg would just stop panic buying, you wouldn't be seeing those photos," said an executive at a major retail chain, about social media posts featuring stores denuded of basic necessities.

Retailers have been loath to speak in detail and on the record about their situations, instead issuing anodyne statements about "normal trading" in response to questions. Some said the situation was evolving too fast earlier in the week, others did not want to draw the attention of looters to open stores and working distribution centres. Later in the week, concern shifted to not drawing unmanageable crowds to fully-stocked stores – with concerns including maintaining social distancing amid a still looming pandemic.

There is still a chance they may need to impose per-customer rationing, two chains said, to keep things such as long-life milk and bread available. But that would be purely in response to consumer stockpiling, not due to constraints anywhere else in the system, and would likely not be necessary in seven provinces.

Yeast and wheat supplies were hit in riots, but both in-store bakeries and warehouses had sufficient supplies of ingredients, and "bread is easy", said one store manager, requiring only ingredients with long shelf lives, electricity, and time. Another store manager said her biggest ongoing concern was making sure specialised bakery staff could get to work safely.

Fresh milk has proven to be a problem, and there are worries about the value chain for cheese and yoghurt, but after previous shortages major chains had increased their holding stock of long-life milk, and several were sanguine about keeping up with normal demand. 

Fresh produce markets have been disrupted due to road closures, but many stores and two chains said their fruit and vegetables never pass through such bottlenecks, but are delivered either to their own warehouses for onward distribution or go directly from farm to shelf.

Depots and warehouses, retailers say, have frozen and tinned stock, and by Thursday those were being reliably delivered across store networks.

As the dust settled, the exception was small, independent retail outlets in townships, which depend on local wholesalers for much of their stock. In sections of KwaZulu-Natal, and in Soweto, such operators said they did not know when those suppliers would be fully operational again. A large number of Makro (and sibling Game) stores were looted in KwaZulu-Natal, and on the outskirts of Johannesburg, distribution centres were closed, or had their own deliveries disrupted as trucks were halted.

What worried retailers both large and small most, though, was freedom of movement. Keeping roads open for both regular deliveries and the re-balancing of stock to deal with losses and surge demand is crucial, they said.

And transporters are worried.

"What started out as sporadic incidents on one or two routes, has now spread to the total supply chain, affecting the transport legs (all forms, whether local or long-haul), as well as destinations and originations," the Road Freight Association's CEO Gavin Kelly, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Soldiers deployed in support of police in Operation Prosper are expected to play an ongoing role in patrolling highways in particular. But co-ordinated attacks on trucks, which can take place anywhere on long stretches of road, require an intelligence response as well as peace enforcers. To date, say those with trucks at risk, the state's capability in that regard has not impressed them.

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