PLETTENBERG BAY NEWS – Plettenberg Bay came to a near standstill last week after violent housing riots swept through the town over a four-day period.
The action not only brought traffic to a grinding halt as major access roads were blocked by protestors, but several businesses were forced to shut their doors due to petrol bombings and looting. Firefighters also had to deal with alleged arson attacks that threatened various properties.
‘Hostage in your own town’
“It felt like we were being held hostage in our town,” said local Joanne Barrett, who lives near the centre of where the riots took place.
“People battled to get into and out of town and stun grenades echoed through the streets over the past few days.”The protest action started on Monday 11 June when residents of Qolweni in Plett blocked the N2 near the town’s industrial area by burning tyres and other objects.
‘Fire highlighted housing need’
This came in the wake of an incident on 3 June when a fire ripped through Qolweni and destroyed 25 informal homes, displacing more than a hundred residents, including 31 children. Protestors say that the tragedy highlighted the need for formal housing in the area.
Authorities managed to disperse the disgruntled residents, but the riots flared up several times until the situation turned violent the next day.
Vehicles pelted with stones
Plettenberg Bay Crime Prevention Association (PBCPA) operations head Otto Olivier said that protestors not only blocked the N2, but they started pelting passing vehicles with rocks. Thereafter several protestors started looting businesses in the town’s industrial area including Diamond Liquors and small business Little Treasures. “Several law enforcement authorities responded. The looters, however, retaliated by throwing stones,” Olivier said.
During the course of Wednesday 13 June the riots flared up several times and police, including public order police from George, intervened by using stun grenades in an attempt to disperse the protestors.
Traffic detours created
Olivier said traffic was redirected. Motorists travelling from Port Elizabeth were advised to make use of the Wittedrift Road to avoid the protests, while motorists heading into Plett from Knysna had to take Airport Road.
On Thursday the riots escalated dramatically, spreading to other parts of the area. Protestors once again blocked the N2 near the town’s industrial area, but rioters also gathered in Kurland Village in the Crags and also Wittedrift.
Petrol bombs used
Plett Watch rapid response member Wesley Andrew said there were also incidents where rioters used petrol bombs to set buildings and other properties alight.
One of these buildings was the Spotlight Night Club off the N2 in the industrial area. Andrew said substantial damage was caused before firefighters could extinguish the flames.
Other properties that were targeted included estates like Schoongezicht Country Estate in Piesang Valley and Castleton on the Piesang Valley Road turn-off. “Firefighterscould contain the fires before damage was caused.” A Working on Fire (WoF) helicopter was also utilised to water bomb the flames.
Plett South Fire Management Unit (FMU) member Steve Ritky said although it was a close call, no structures were damaged.
Andrew added that in the Crags, protestors also set a bushy area alight which quickly spread towards the Tsitsikamma area due to hot and windy conditions. This forced the provincial traffic department to close the Tsitsikamma Toll Plaza, which meant no vehicles could enter or exit the area. Motorists were also advised not to use the Nature’s Valley road as excessive smoke caused low visibility.
Police station set alight
Provincial traffic chief Kenny Africa confirmed that they could only reopen the toll gates late on Thursday afternoon.
This was not the first time residents of Kurland Village, who barricaded the access road to the area by burning various objects on Thursday, had protested.
Late last month residents participated in an approved protest over mainly housing issues after several informal dwellings burnt down two weeks prior. The protest action, however, took a turn for the worse when protesters set fire to the satellite police station.
Protestors demanded housing and better policing in the area, a more suitable clinic and streetlights.
Public violence arrests
The Green Valley community in Wittedrift, which has a long history with housing battles, also blocked access to the area on Thursday in an attempt to highlight their plights.
Southern Cape police spokesperson Captain Malcolm Pojie said seven protestors were arrested over the course of the action on charges of public violence.
The situation became even more dire when protest action erupted in Nekkies in Knysna leaving several motorists heading towards Plett stranded.
Municipal spokesperson Manfred van Rooyen said Bitou mayor Peter Lobese met with the protestors between 13:00 and 15:30 on Thursday.
“Although housing is at the top of their list of concerns, unemployment, a clinic and a school for Qolweni also came up,” Van Rooyen said.
He added that Lobese made various commitments and agreed to interact with the relevant government departments to deal with their concerns.
Lobese will report back to the community on 21 June, seven days after the meeting. This brought the riots to an end after four days of chaos.