JOHANNESBURG—Umhlanga is a small, idyllic beach town on the east coast of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. For its residents, Umhlanga is home, where the everyday hustle and bustle of life takes place. But for a few weeks during the July winter holiday, hundreds of people from all over the country come to enjoy a few weeks away. Holidaymakers enjoy the slow pace of the small city and its many beaches. No one could have imagined that they would experience something out of a dystopian nightmare.

“People were sitting with guns in their hands waiting for people to break into their homes as the violence and looting were taking place outside,” said Rabbi Shlomo Wainer, who co-directs Chabad of the North Coast in Umhlanga with his wife, Devorah. “The civilians organized neighborhood security patrols to protect their homes and businesses because law enforcement was so overwhelmed. People were coming to me for food and medicine, even toilet paper, because there was none available.”

For the people in Umhlanga and neighboring cities, the experience was unimaginable. The rioting resulted in a major lack of basic essentials. Food, medicine and gasoline were unavailable, pillaged by looters. New supplies were unable to be brought in due to the closure of all major highways by looters. Fear and anxiety were palpable.

Meanwhile, 90 pharmacies have been destroyed “beyond revival” as the country grapples with a brutal third wave of the coronavirus. The rampage later spread to Johannesburg, inflicting a devastating blow to an economy already battered by Covid-19. The total losses to the national economy are estimated to be 50 billion rand ($3.4 billion), according to a government statement.

In response, Chabad in Umhlanga and the South African Jewish community leaped into action to help out the thousands of people left without food and essentials. Wainer, together with the Johannesburg Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society, South African Jewish Board of Deputies and Sydenham Shul arranged for food and provisions to be airlifted to hardest-hit areas and be distributed to all in need, Jews and non-Jews alike. Wainer has been giving out food and essentials to people in Umhlanga, Durban, Ballito and many other affected areas.

In Umhlanga, Rabbi Shlomo Wainer distributes challahs before Shabbat to Jewish residents who were unable to obtain baked goods, or even flour or yeast.
In Umhlanga, Rabbi Shlomo Wainer distributes challahs before Shabbat to Jewish residents who were unable to obtain baked goods, or even flour or yeast.

‘Overcome With Relief’

Brendan Moore was in Ballito, another popular holiday destination, with his family when the violence erupted.

“We were on holiday so we tried to avoid going to the shops as much as possible. Especially during these corona times,” he recounted. “The fresh produce in our fridge was running low, but we didn’t think we needed to stock up right then and there. When the shops did eventually open days later, my wife waited in line for six hours before she finally got access and was limited to choosing only 20 items. All the fresh produce shelves had been emptied by then. We had all the ingredients to bake our own challah, except yeast. Unfortunately, there were only empty shelves around the baking sections.”

For Moore and his family, the relief efforts of the Jewish community saved the day. “We hadn’t planned on being in Ballito for Tisha B’Av or the Shabbos before, and we had run out of milk, meat, challah and grape juice. A family member recommended we make contact with Rabbi Wainer to see if he still had enough supplies to assist us,” said Moore.

“After contacting the rabbi, I immediately received a list of what food and essentials he had available,” continued Moore. “We were overcome with relief that we would be able to put challah and wine on the Shabbos table instead of making an inedible alternative. Upon confirming our order, the rabbi mentioned there was another family coming from Umhlanga through to Ballito who may be able to assist us. The rabbi put me in contact with this family, who were only too happy to assist us.”

In Johannesburg, volunteers at the Sydenham Shul prepare boxes food and basic supplies to be airlifted to those in need.
In Johannesburg, volunteers at the Sydenham Shul prepare boxes food and basic supplies to be airlifted to those in need.

Stepping Up in Time of Crisis

Alana Baranov, a resident of Umhlanga who helped Wainer coordinate relief efforts, described the experience, “The area where I live was near a ‘hotspot’ during the riots. We have been barricaded in our home for most of last week and up all night with the sounds of chanting and gunfire as looters attempted to break into a large shop and some warehouses close by. One of the warehouses, a pesticide and chemical warehouse, was set alight and exploded billowing toxic smoke for days. My family participated in the neighborhood watch patrols in our area.”

Baranov said that “the way in which both the Jewish and broader South African society have stepped up in a time of crisis and stood together to assist each other has been incredibly heartwarming. Throughout the unrest, people from different communities have come together to protect each other’s lives, homes and businesses, and to start clean up and rebuilding operations.”

Now that the violence has calmed down, the communities in Umhlanga and the surrounding cities in KwaZulu-Natal are left to pick up the pieces. Wainer has launched an initiative “Operation Beyond Relief” to help the thousands of people affected by the rioting.

“Thank G‑d, the Jewish community is amazing,” said Wainer. “We are extending our acts of kindness and relief efforts to the African communities in Inanda, Phoenix and Verulam. We will be able to assist and make a difference to these communities that have been devastated due to the social unrest and violence.”

To help out with ongoing relief efforts, visit the donation site here.