As It Happens·Q&A

'It looked like a bomb went off,' says owner of looted South African restaurant

Reza Amod says there's "nothing left" of the restaurant he opened just three months ago in Johannesburg.

South Africa has been seized by deadly riots since the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma

Two screenshots from video show what's left of Grootman restaurant in Johannesburg, South Africa, after it was gutted by looters in the wake of former president Jacob Zuma's arrest. (Submitted by Reza Amod)

Story Transcript

Reza Amod says there's "nothing left" of the restaurant he opened just three months ago in Johannesburg.

The South African city and other other parts of the country have been grappling with deadly rioting and looting since Thursday, spurred by the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma.

Zuma is serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court after defying a court order to testify at a state-backed inquiry investigating allegations of corruption during his 2009-2018 presidency. 

What began as protests against the arrest have since turned into riots. As of Tuesday, at least 72 people have been killed, including 10 who were trampled to death at a mall while police and military fired stun grenades and rubber bullets, The Associated Press reported. More than 1,200 people have been arrested. 

Amod opened the restaurant, Grootman, in April alongside co-owner Lucky Lekgwathi, a former Orlando Pirates player. Now he says they'll have to rebuild from scratch.

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue. 

Can you describe what happened at your restaurant yesterday?

There was a massive mob that mobilized outside the gates of [the shopping] centre [where Grootman operates], and they took the gates off the rail by force. A group of people just picked up the gates off the rail and they stormed our centre, broke all the locks with rocks and bricks, and looted absolutely everything, gutted every shop.

What happened to your restaurant?

Once they broke into my restaurant, they stole absolutely everything. Duncan, they stole my wooden counter, the pipes for the toilet. They stole our aluminum framed doors at the entrance. They stole our breakers that are on the electric DB box.

Absolutely everything that could be stripped from the restaurant was. It looked like a bomb went off. There's nothing left. Nothing.

You just opened this restaurant this spring, and I saw some photos and video on social media. Everyone was all smiles at the ribbon cutting. What are people feeling today?

It's absolutely devastating. We opened up the site about three months ago to great fanfare, great response from the community. It was absolutely amazing.

We used to run a lot of outreach programs from that restaurant, do a lot of work with the youth in the community, and various soccer celebrities, boxers, TV celebs, trying to inspire the youth. We tried to uplift this community, you know? It's devastating. It feels like a betrayal. 

Reza Amod, right, Lucky Lekgwathi, centre, and a third colleague cut the ribbon at the official opening of Grootman in April. (Submitted by Reza Amod)

That all happened yesterday. I understand you're trying to protect one of your other restaurants tonight. Can you describe what's happening now?

At one of our other sites, we've got about 20 armed guards with big automatic rifles [and] bullet-proof vests stationed at the borders of our centre where this location is. All of the tenants, our landlord, pooled together resources. We've got as many firearms, guns, onsite as possible. 

And we're standing and protecting what's ours. We're protecting our businesses. 

Tell us what kind of other damage are you seeing in the city?

There's buildings on fire. There's trucks on fire. 

It's isolated pockets of violence. It's not absolutely everywhere, but there's thousands of different shops and malls that have been looted. 

Police in South Africa try to control protesters, looters

3 months ago
South African police are using rubber bullets to try to end sprawling protests and widespread looting, which began after former president Jacob Zuma was jailed for contempt of court. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters) 1:12

These protests started off as calls for former president Zuma's release. Why did they turn so destructive?

People use the arrest of Jacob Zuma and use this opportunity to loot. They're not interested in the politics.

There's so much inequality in our country that, through the devastation caused by coronavirus, people are starving. People have absolutely no hope, no opportunities. And when they see a time to loot, they take absolutely everything they can.

It's sad. It's a sad situation. 

There's no doubt that South Africa's economy is struggling right now. There's high rates of joblessness, food insecurity. Do you have any sympathy for what the people are going through right now?

To a certain degree there is sympathy. In most of the cases, it's the food items that were looted first.

But then we've seen videos come out. And in-person we've seen incidents where fancy cars are pulling up outside the stores and looting. Guys are jumping into Mercedes Benzes that are brand new with looted items. And then that's where you lose sympathy. People are just taking advantage, you know? It's become absolute anarchy.

This photograph taken Tuesday shows a looted supermarket in a mall in Vosloorus. (Maco Longari/AFP/Getty Images)

Is this something that could have been prevented?

They took the decision to arrest Jacob Zuma and they knew that his supporters were going to be upset and cause destruction and show their unease with the decision of the arrest.

So since they took the decision to arrest him, which is justified, they should have deployed the army sooner. They should have deployed police sooner. Police didn't have rubber bullets, riot gear, the resources necessary to defend the city.

It's absolutely disappointing that we haven't seen any support from the government.

How are you going to get back on your feet after what happened to Grootman?

We've got a lot of support from the community at large. A lot of people are offering donations to help us pay our salaries, to help us pay our suppliers. So we've opened up our foundation account for people to assist us, and we're getting a very good response from general citizens of South Africa.

So we're going to get back up with the people supporting [us]. We're going to be open for the community soon. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo. 

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