South Africa

OP-ED

Painful reminder of apartheid’s racist legacy rises from the ashes of deadly Phoenix unrest

President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the nation on developments in the country’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic on 25 July 2021. (Photo: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS)

The attempts to turn one race against another in KZN demonstrate how determined some people are to divide us, and how we need to do everything we can to resist them.

While the violence and destruction that engulfed parts of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng two weeks ago caused much damage to property and livelihoods, it also had a huge impact on the cohesion of our communities.

This was most evident in the tragic events that took place in and around Phoenix in eThekwini.

During some of the worst unrest in our democracy, and in a climate already thick with suspicion and paranoia, people who had lived side-by-side in relative peace turned on each other.

There is still much we have to unearth about the events that took place over the course of the past two weeks. The proliferation of fake news, doctored images and incorrect information has made it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

But we do know from official reports and personal accounts that people were racially profiled at illegal roadblocks, some people were pulled out of cars and beaten, and some were humiliated and degraded. Several people were killed.

Much of what has happened is the inevitable outcome when people take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism will not be tolerated in this country. It is criminal and it is dangerous.

Now that calm has been restored to the affected areas, our law enforcement agencies are investigating all acts of criminality. A team of detectives has been assigned to deal with the murders and is working closely with local communities. There have been arrests and those responsible will face the full might of the law.

Much of the narrative around the events in Phoenix has been dominated by attempts to turn one race against another. It has been stoked by anonymous people on social media and in messaging groups making outrageous claims and calling for revenge.

There is an attempt to present this as a sign of imploding race relations between African and Indian communities.

Just as there were people who tried to exploit people’s vulnerability and cause mayhem, there are those who want to present criminal acts in racial terms to serve their own purposes.

They will not succeed. South Africa has a proud history of principled non-racialism and working-class solidarity. African and Indian communities were united in the struggle against apartheid and, together with other communities, remain committed to a united and democratic society.

In response to the fear and mistrust, the people of Phoenix and the neighbouring areas of Bhambayi, Zwelitsha and Amaoti are working to repair the damage. Aided by a peace forum established by the South African Police Service in partnership with community leaders, the communities have come together to support those affected by the unrest and to open channels of dialogue.

This is not the only part of the country that is confronted with such challenges.

Our efforts to build integrated communities are frustrated by the legacy of apartheid planning and persistent inequality. Our cities, towns and rural areas are still all divided by both race and class. This discourages cooperation and understanding, and hampers the work we have undertaken to build a non-racial society.

Correcting these spatial distortions must be part of our work of building an inclusive economy and improving the living conditions of all South Africans. It is why we are working to build flourishing township and rural economies, and focusing on the growth of small businesses. It is why we are investing in infrastructure in these areas and working to improve the provision of services.

At the same time, we need to confront racism in our society. We need to have honest conversations not only about our attitudes to one another, but also about the material conditions that divide us. For as long as the division of wealth and opportunity in South Africa is largely still determined by race and gender, we will not be able to build a truly united nation.

The events in Phoenix are a painful reminder of how much work we still need to do to build inclusive communities that have successfully broken down the boundaries of the past. These events also demonstrate how determined some people are to divide us, and how we need to do everything we can to resist them.

It is our collective responsibility to support these communities in eThekwini and elsewhere in their journey towards reconciliation and healing.

Our democracy was built by peacemakers and bridge-builders. The architects of our freedom were African, Indian, coloured and white men and women of great courage who chose the path of reconciliation over retribution, and of peace over war.

As we strive to heal from this collective national trauma, let us stand as one. Let us overcome our differences in pursuit of the common good.

Let us work together to forge a common future in which everyone has an equal share. DM

This is the President’s weekly letter to the nation released on Monday.

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All Comments 10

  • Mr Ramaphosa: I have done you the favour of editing a couple of the sentences in your weekly letter:

    1. “While the violence and destruction that engulfed almost all of KwaZulu-Natal and critical parts of Gauteng Gauteng”.
    2. “But we do know from official reports and personal accounts that people were racially profiled at roadblocks, set up (in the absence of our totally incompetent security and police forces) by communities in an attempt to protect themselves and their property”.

  • With the utmost respect – stop blaming apartheid! These comments seek to deflect attention from your Party’s failures. The ANC has had two-and-a-half decades to improve the lives of citizens, but all you’ve done is steal and destroy the institutions of the country. It’s time you put South Africa before the Party. Disgraceful!

  • A Luta Continua / The Looting Continues.
    Sad, disappointing, but then you can only be writing this as ANC President. It lacks the statesmanship required of a leader of a wonderfully talented and diverse country.

  • We are all tired of the opening that putrid bottle of apartheid by politicians that try to hide their incompetence. The ANC has had 27 years to address employment, service delivery and land issues without any success. The grand theft that happened while you as vice president stood by silent without condemnation, while this should have been diverted to empowering the poor and unemployed. Too late now, but this is time to be bold and sensible!

  • “Much of what has happened is the inevitable outcome when people take the law into their own hands. Vigilantism will not be tolerated in this country. It is criminal and it is dangerous.”

    Really???!? It it weren’t for these groups of citizens, the destruction and looting would have been even worse. Where was the police and why did it take three days to get any soldiers deployed, when it was already too late? The criminal and dangerous behaviour is that of the ANC government.

    • 1. “For as long as the division of wealth and opportunity in South Africa is largely still determined by race and gender, we will not be able to build a truly united nation.” Sorry Mr president but where does continual BEE (after 27 years of achieving only incapability and ineptitude on a grand scale) fit in all its warped applications (see tourism assistance fund) based purely on Racial quotas? Where are the fair opportunities for everyone?
      2. “Our democracy was built by peacemakers and bridge-builders. The architects of our freedom were African, Indian, coloured and white men and women of great courage who chose the path of reconciliation over retribution, and of peace over war.” I am one of the many – So why Mr, President, are skilled people still being discriminated against and excluded from assisting to build this country back up to the working entity that you received and destroyed? We have much to offer in getting the Municipalities, Local and National Government to improve their effectiveness dramatically (and rapidly). It is time to admit defeat of your Cadre deployment policies and take our outstretched helping hand – only then can you say anything about building a truly inclusive society.

  • Mr President I beg to differ. What happened in Phoenix and in other communities or suburbs has nothing to do with racial profiling but rather the general public are generally sick and tired of sub-standard or no policing and criminals not facing the “might of the law”. Since 2008 and if not before, anarchy has been and remains a way of life for South Africans living in KZN. It just wasn’t so “in-your-face” as it was on July 4 onwards. People looted and stole, broke and rode roughshod over whatever they liked. SAPS was seldom seen holding people to account. This is not a sudden occurrence that came out of nowhere, its being going on – albeit under the radar – for years and years. Law abiding citizens have had enough of this impunity, the filth and the lack of maintenance and they showed it and that’s what has made the difference, and that’s what is new and unusual. I also agree that both those in the Indian and Coloured communities in KZN are thoroughly neglected and ignored by the authorities – the unfortunate phraseology used to refer to these communities is “they are not black enough”. When the rioters and looters came to Phoenix there was no-one to help, no SAPS, no military, no-one. I agree with the AmaZulu King, Misuzulu kaZwelithini – those who chose to run riot in KZN and Gauteng have “shamed” the Zulu nation. It’s that simple. No racial profiling required.