“There’s a body over there,” said the fireman.
The back of a ravaged shopping mall in a Johannesburg suburb is where one man’s life came to an end.
There, among pallets piled on the chilly ground, a cardboard box that once held a giant TV covered the anonymous individual, a pool of blood around his legs.
He was killed in the looting the day before. But how? No-one is able to say.
South Africa is reeling from its greatest crisis since it brought the curtain down on apartheid three decades ago.
The country has been deeply traumatised by the sight of its own citizens casually robbing businesses as police stand by, seemingly powerless.
If a symbol were needed of this terrible moment, it could be found on Wednesday at the Vosloorus shopping centre on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg.
A mall that had once been a showcase for South Africa’s emerging middle class was overrun by crowds scavenging through its remains.
Grandmothers, youths and even children swarmed over the site, sifting through the debris and wandering into the shops to see what was left on the shelves.
On this frosty morning in the southern hemisphere winter, no-one seemed to be in any rush.
– ‘What a mess’ –
“I took nothing from inside. I’m just looking at things left out here,” said a 56-year-old woman who did not want to give her name.
“What a mess… ugly mess.”
Like many women here, she insisted she was not a thief. In her plastic bag, she had some office supplies and a bath towel still in its wrapping.
“I’m from around here. I just came to see.”
The car park was littered with signs of mayhem.
Smears of flour and sugar on the ground mingled with a tangle of hangers and soggy cardboard boxes and scattered 12-gauge shotgun cartridge cases in bright orange.
Lying among them were a pink slipper with worn fur, lost in the scramble over the past few days, and new flip-flops, which probably fell from a box.
Anything with wheels was being used to haul away the loot.
An office chair glided past, laden with an umbrella and energy drinks. A little further on, a woman in a pink fluffy dressing gown and matching woollen hat pushed a wheeled mop bucket overflowing with food items.
– ‘We don’t break, we take’ –
Inside the shops, a shrill, intermittent alarm sounded — but no-one took any notice.
A pipe had burst, and you had to step over the fallen shelves to avoid the puddles.
A steady stream of gleaners came through the shattered door of the store, using their phones as torches to explore the shop’s darkened corners.
A shy teenage girl carried flowery blouses. A smiling man ran towards the exit, a bag slung over his shoulder. Shoes, he said, for his children.
“I’m not stealing, I’m hungry,” said a mother. “We don’t break, we take.”
Two teenage-looking boys in the carpark had a pile of jackets in their hands. They each put one on, the folds still visible.
“Can you give me one?” a young woman asked.
The two, who gave their names as Shine and Cwebezela, handed it to her without a word.
When asked about the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma, the initial trigger for the riots of the past few days, the group burst out laughing.
“Free Zuma! Outside Zuma!” they shouted. “You see, we are busy protesting here.”
A man found the cash register of a shop. He shook it and heard the rattling of coins inside. He lifted it over his head and smashed it against a metal barrier, but it refused to yield its meagre treasure.
In the car park, people were busy working on the single vehicle there — a car with broken windows.
A tow cable was attached to it. There would be neighbours who knew what to do with the spare parts. Nothing would be wasted.