Cliff and I set off before breakfast for our appointment with a tyre company to have our 4th tyre replacement of the trip fitted.
As we drove out of the side entrance of the hotel there were three or four cars waiting to the right to enter Voortrekker Straat. Mums taking their kids to school, we thought. We decided to take a left turn instead, followed by two rights and were now at an empty junction with Voortrekkers. A police car with sirens and flashing lights on came by and stopped about 1 km along to our left. Oh dear, early morning crunch! Never mind, we had to turn right anyway. We drove past the hotel and at the next junction found a line of riot police in full riot gear – helmets, shields, sticks and guns, two lines deep. That was useful to know – obviously more trouble on the near by N2. Never mind, we had to turn left rather than past the police line.
We turned left and … found a group of some 300 rioters running towards us, screaming, shouting, waving arms and sticks and various items of gardening tools! Not good!
Where do we go? Cliff threw the car into reverse and we went back to the supposed safety of the police line, but their ranks remained closed. Then back down Voortrekkers and we pulled into a petrol station across from the hotel. But the horde had caught up with us and had now engulfed the car, hands and faces against the windows and were starting to rock the car. Not good!!
What should we do? Then we heard some voices issuing commands. The crowd moved on, apparently following instructions from marshalls. With the road now clear of people, we now zigzagged around the debris – burnt out tyres, rocks and bottles and arrived at the garage where everything looked closed. The manager must have spotted us and came out of hiding from behind the building. Hurriedly he explained that the protesters had called a total strike last night, any business breaking the rules would be thrashed or burned to the ground. We looked at him in disbelief. He pointed at another petrol station next to his tyre place: every window was broken and the mumps pulled apart. It appears that the rioters had wanted to obtain petrol to cause more damage but had found the fuel sealed away below ground with the pumps switched off. It would be a long time before they could serve customers again. He confirmed that our tyre had arrived and would call us at the hotel later today or tomorrow. A little worried, we drove back to the hotel where we found staff and guests cowering away from windows.
Eunice and David were OK, but scared. Did we get our tyre? No, may be later. Should we make a run for it and try to get to Cape Town?
It seemed that police and marshals were keeping the crowd on the move, marching them along a circuit through the town. Sooner or later, they were bound to get tired and fed up. There was a knock on the door and some policemen came with a protester’s spokesperson. Although most staff at the Hotel had stayed away from work, without telling their boss, five employees had turned up. The strikers had become aware of this and now demanded that the strike breakers left the building. They were given a police escort for their safety but looked very scared as they left.
Three trades reps who had stayed at the hotel for a regional meeting decided to make a run for it. They knew of roads and tracks that would get them around the problem area. They had received information by mobile phone that the N2 away from Swellendam was clear of trouble. They promised to ring if they got through. An hour later they were back. No go.
We now felt like prisoners under siege. Tyres were still burning and smouldering around Voortrekkers. Earlier we had witnessed the crowd coming round again and attacking a middle-aged man, the manager of the petrol station across the road from the hotel, now closed, receiving a beating.
We decided to sit it out for the day. A police officer came to collect prepared meals for some 40 people – the hotel had the contract to provide food for the local police cells! Although tense, he tried to reassure everyone that everything was under control. The strikers had broken into a liquor store in one of the townships and helped themselves to its contents. Soon after they went on the rampage. By walking them around they expected that they would walk off the alcohol and would eventually tire. Everything should be back to ‘normal’ tomorrow.
The owner and his wife, an elderly couple, originally from Portugal did their very best to make us feel comfortable and started to prepare a limited menu dinner for the evening. Fortunately the internet connection in the entrance hall area stayed up so that I was able to chat with Angie in the UK who advised that there had been no news of the events around us on the news. Eventually she managed to get on the eNCA Africa News channel and could watch the story there. I looked around various other news sites on the internet and learned that although today’s events were very real and worrying for us, in the middle of it, it hardly ranked as a news item compared to all the other violence and conflicts around the world. For a start, no one was killed.
It was a day that I won’t forget in a hurry. The few images that I have of the day are filed as stop S2824.