REQUIEM FOR SOUTH AFRICA
‘Phoenix massacre’: What really happened in the deadly collision of brutalised communities
Many Indian and Black residents in Phoenix and surrounding areas in KZN, have largely agreed on one thing – if the police and the SANDF had reacted sooner, much of the suffering now being experienced by communities of all races could have been avoided.
For the purposes of this article, Daily Maverick spoke to more than 30 “ordinary” individuals: family members of those allegedly killed in the violence, residents, business owners and vendors, and also to politicians, police, former police officers, detectives and community leaders. Those interviewed were from Phoenix and the surrounding areas of Inanda, Amaoti, KwaMashu, Bhambayi and Zwelisha.
What was made evident from these interactions and visits to the area, was that each side of the colour “divide” is eager for justice – justice for family members allegedly killed or assaulted because of their race, justice for family members allegedly killed while trying to protect their families during the unrest, and justice for residents who lost livelihoods.
The turmoil in KwaZulu-Natal started with sporadic incidents on July 8 after former president Jacob Zuma was jailed for contempt, but by July 11 had escalated to levels of destruction, criminality and rioting on a scale not previously witnessed in democratic South Africa.
Eighty-nine malls and shopping centres were targeted, as were 45 warehouses, 22 factories, eight banks, 88 ATMs, 89 liquor outlets, eight liquor distributors, 139 schools, and 37 trucks. The infrastructure and facilities were looted and many set alight by some of the indigent from informal settlements and by what appear to have been middle-class residents from townships and suburbs in the province – many of them armed.
The provincial government has estimated that the cost to eThekwini’s GDP alone will be about R20-billion.
In the absence of “overwhelmed” police throughout the province, and a significantly delayed response by the SANDF, community policing forums and hundreds of neighbourhoods formed patrol groups to protect themselves, their shopping centres and properties.
Some vigilante groups also emerged and took a criminal approach to “protection”, deliberately confronting alleged looters and ordinary citizens, and in the process allegedly committed brutal acts of violence.
While the government is spinning like a turntable to explain what happened, citizens have overwhelmingly agreed that the country’s police, intelligence services and the governing African National Congress have failed them. Again.
For purposes of brevity, Daily Maverick states upfront that only those named in this article were willing to speak on the record. Others were mindful of potential repercussions that might include job losses or “revenge” on their families, properties and businesses from “various” elements.
“Indians killed black people for no reason, that’s what I was told,” a street vendor selling fresh vegetables at the Raza Oriental Plaza in Phoenix told Daily Maverick when asked to convey how she understood the term “Phoenix massacre”.
“The amaparas [drug addicted beggars referred to as parasites or paras] told us, they said they had seen it. I think it is true, because I saw a mortuary van coming past more than once, and then we heard 500 people had been killed. I don’t have a problem with Indians though, they support my business; they are my customers.”
The narrative of a massacre of between 350 and 500 Black people in Phoenix, allegedly perpetrated by Indian residents, gained significant traction in the days following the civil unrest, with single-source reporting from some media houses adding jet fuel to the literal flames. An executive of the National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa was quoted as saying that 500 bodies were piled at the Phoenix state morgue.
Without evidence, a connection immediately seems to have been made by uninformed members of the public and some media that the “hundreds of bodies” were all as a result of the “Phoenix massacre”. This either wittingly or unwittingly fanned racial flames.
KZN Health MEC Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu had by 21 July tried to dispel the false reports via a visit to the mortuary, which she said was processing the remains of 128 individuals and stressed that these were not necessarily all linked to the civil unrest.
A mortuary employee told Daily Maverick that the facility acted as a catchment area for deaths as far south as Umbilo and as far north as Verulam. The two suburbs are approximately 36km apart and separated by mostly dense residential and commercial settlements.
The same mortuary employee said that of the bodies being processed at the morgue, “over 80%” had gunshot wounds.
The government-run Gale Street mortuary in Umbilo was closed in April last year after constant employee strikes at the facility, which was deemed a health hazard.
During the period of unrest, crematoriums and cemeteries throughout eThekwini were also closed, leading to an influx of bodies at state morgues, notably Phoenix.
To be clear, there is some credible evidence being investigated by police of what appear to be the indiscriminate murders of Black people in Phoenix, as there are credible incidents of Black people allegedly being assaulted in Phoenix for “just being black”.
There are also credible incidents being investigated of those of Indians being shot by Black people who are suspected of being involved in looting.
It remains unclear at this stage exactly how many businesses were looted or attacked in Phoenix, and if any homes were invaded during the unrest.
Daily Maverick has been able to establish via newspaper reports and/or interviews with families that the following individuals allegedly died in Phoenix and surrounds as a result of the unrest. This list is not exhaustive, but what the number of deaths does reveal is that investigations have to be swift and uncompromising to ensure justice is served.
- Radesh Shanganlall (allegedly killed by a speeding taxi in Phoenix).
- Ganesh Naidoo (allegedly shot while on patrol in Phoenix).
- Xolani Cele (allegedly shot in Verulam).
- Vuyiswa Nontlanga (allegedly died in a taxi crash at Cornubia).
- Mondli Majola (family asked to be left alone to mourn in peace).
- Ntombi Lutuka (allegedly hit by a private security vehicle).
- Sbusiso Makalima (allegedly shot by police in Cornubia).
- Khalipha Nontlaka (allegedly shot by police in Cornubia).
- Delani Khumalo (allegedly shot and burnt while looking for a petrol station in Phoenix).
- Mlondi Khumalo (allegedly shot and burned while looking for a petrol station in Phoenix).
- Mbuyazwe Zondi (allegedly beaten to death in Phoenix).
- Thabani Mthalani (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Charmaine Mhlongo (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Lindani Lukhuzo (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Julinho Muchave (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Yanga Nkwane (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Aphiwe Gama (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Sanele Mngomezulu (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Bhekinkosi Ngcobo (allegedly stabbed to death in Phoenix).
- Saziso Mnukwa (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Michael Cane (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Delani Ncayiyana (allegedly shot in Phoenix).
- Sinesipho Ntleki (allegedly shot at Cornubia Mall).
- Sanele Ntleki (allegedly shot in Verulam).
- Thulasizwe Nzimande (allegedly struck by a stray bullet while at home).
- Faybian Moodley (allegedly shot in Verulam).
KZN Premier Sihle Zikalala said on Saturday: “At least 38 people are reported to have been killed by vigilante groups” during the unrest. “These murders are not only from Phoenix but also in Inanda and Verulam areas.”
A team of “top detectives” from eThekwini had been established to “lead the investigations” into the killings, said Zikalala.
Throughout the province, 251 people had died, he said. The SA Police Service was investigating 163 cases of murder, while 87 inquest dockets had been opened.
“The majority who died during the unrest had gunshot wounds and stab wounds, while others were badly assaulted. Some people died from smoke inhalation and severe burn wounds because some warehouses that were looted were subsequently set alight while people were inside. Others died during stampedes as they fought each other over stolen goods.
“As of [Saturday] morning, the total number of people arrested in the province over the recent looting is 2,763. A majority of the suspects were arrested for being in possession of stolen goods,” said Zikalala.
On Monday, 10 suspects appeared in a closed session at the Verulam Magistrates’ Court “on charges relating to the unrest that took place in parts of the greater Durban area two weeks ago”, according to National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson in KZN, Natasha Kara.
Charges include murder, attempted murder, possession of stolen property, malicious damage to property, and unlawful possession of firearm/s and ammunition.
Kara said proceedings were held in-camera “to protect the identity of the accused persons as identity parades are yet to be conducted”. Bail applications will be heard on Friday.
While this plays out, things on the street in Phoenix are as normal as can be expected in the aftermath of the violent riots, while heartbroken families are scattered across the area.
“It’s very difficult… It’s difficult because we don’t know what’s going on,” said Khanyisile Zondi, the niece of Mbuyazwe Zondi, who was allegedly beaten to death in Phoenix.
“We’re lost,” she told Daily Maverick.
“We were meant to have the funeral on Thursday but we’ve had to postpone it because there still needs to be a post mortem, so we can know what happened. He [Mbuyazwe] will be cut where he needs and the post mortem results will tell us what happened. We will find closure at least when we know how my uncle died.”
Zondi said the family would be opening a case on Wednesday. “We were only told of his death and then I was told to do an affidavit last Friday; now we are told we need to open a case, so it’s a lot, but we will hang in there.”
Philisiwe Ngcobo, a family member of Bhekinkosi Ngcobo, also allegedly murdered in Phoenix, said Bhekinkosi’s death “was very brutal, especially because he was paralysed.
“He was injured at work a long time ago so I know he couldn’t run even if he wanted to. But we have had no choice but to accept he is gone and try to pick up the pieces. They found five bodies where he died.
“We had his funeral last Saturday and we’ve been drawing our strength from the comfort we’ve been getting from the community.
“Our case was opened at the scene and we’ve got a case number, but we haven’t heard anything so far. I suppose police are still investigating. I have hope that they will find those culpable, I know there are honest Indians who will help the police with the information they need, those who saw what happened.”
While media reports have indicated heightened volatility in Phoenix, this appears to be mostly from political players and ambitious opportunists seeking to take advantage of raw wounds and desperate, hurting families.
There is, however, a fear among Indian residents that has been informed by stories handed down for generations of the Durban riots of 1949, in which mostly Indians were targeted by Black people, and fresher memories of the 1985 Inanda riots, in which thousands had to flee that area after being attacked.
The Inanda riots took place during the apartheid government’s second State of Emergency, and were thought to have been instigated by unscrupulous elements for political and personal gain.
The democratic government has taken a similar stance on the latest unrest, and has stopped just short of labelling the two weeks of disgrace an attempted coup. “Instigators” of the violence are being sought for swift prosecution, the public has repeatedly been told.
Nevertheless, a “peace committee” has been established in Phoenix to restore calm and “be the bridge between the law enforcement and residents of Zwelisha, Phoenix, Bhambayi and Amaoti”, according to convenor Chris Biyela.
Biyela told Daily Maverick that the committee is made up of 12 members who were elected by the four communities, three from each.
The peace committee is working with the department of social development, community safety, the SAPS and small community committees.
“Ultimately, the committee wants peace but are aware it will be a long road. It wants to see the police work. [The SAPS must] recover guns that were used to kill people, do away with illegal security companies that were involved and provided guns, and arrest those implicated. The videos that are confirmed to be from these killings should be used as evidence to find and charge the culprits.”
Biyela said there should be a “sincere apology from the Indian community because you can’t talk peace without any apology and the Black community can’t go to Phoenix to apologise – what would they be apologising for? This can cause war between these communities that can last for years and potentially for generations, so it should be stopped now”.
It is this “narrative” espoused by Biyela and supported by many Black people that the Indian residents of Phoenix, that Daily Maverick spoke to, say they are trying to “correct”.
“Who was doing the looting and theft? It wasn’t Indians, it wasn’t whites, it wasn’t coloureds. It was black Africans. It was ANC comrades. You can’t tell me not to paint all blacks with the same brush [by saying all Black people were looting], and then you turn around and paint all Indians with the same brush [by saying all Indians in Phoenix were killing blacks]. That doesn’t make sense and it will get us nowhere,” said a shop owner.
But, Biyela told Daily Maverick: “If the Indian community insists that they were defending their property then at the very least they should admit that their criteria was wrong.
“The manner of these deaths and the places they occurred in shows that it was more than that. As things are, the Black community is very angry, it’s furious.”
Biyela said “the Indians” should “lead the campaign for peace and involve everyone so that we can all talk with one voice”.
“There should be an agreement from both communities with a clear way forward and clear directions on how to deal with those who go against it in future.”
According to street vendor Natasha Naidoo, “When the looting and violence started on Monday we heard groups running down the road… we just left our goods and scattered. The police response was not good and we were fearing for our lives.
“The Blacks were defending themselves, just like the Indians were defending ourselves. We heard voice notes that the looters were coming into the suburbs and were going to attack us. Why would [non-criminal Black residents want] to come from [their] township or informal settlement after 9pm at night when there was a Covid curfew and it was dangerous because of the looting? Why did they want to be here?
“The media has also reported this unfairly. A lady from SABC came here and focused on the Black deaths and attacked Indians. She didn’t even respond when Indian deaths were mentioned [during the broadcast]. There must be justice for all,” said Naidoo.
According to another resident: “There were no police, people had to fend for themselves. I understand the police were limited, and that has always been a problem in Phoenix. If you look at the way the media was reporting on this, it was not balanced. I believe the truth will come out in court, whether it is from video footage, photographs or witnesses.”
Messages and voice notes were circulating feverishly at the height of the unrest in the province, and added to their terror, said Phoenix residents.
One such anonymous message read:
Complete shutdown Monday baba complete i tell you!!!
Dont think we forget about your area tomorrow morning you will wake up and see flames.
We warning you people tonight so don’t think we never warn you
Tomorrow we coming in all your Indian people town to close everything so bring your cars to us to burn and close the towns we dare you cz you have been warned
Tongaat main road
We closing everything you will see when you wake up you rather stay in house or we going to burn you with your car.
“The police have not done their jobs. Even now, there have been ANC people at the police station saying, ‘We are going to shoot Indians’. Nobody has been arrested,” alleged another vendor.
According to Nonceba Mhlauli, the convenor of the ANCYL task team, who visited Phoenix on Saturday:
“We asked police [where they were] during all this and they conceded that they were short-staffed, so they were overwhelmed by everything. So we will ask the minister of police how it is possible for something like this to happen and there is no police. The issue of police resources is a big issue in this area.”
A police officer told Daily Maverick that some of those blocking the roads in Phoenix and patrolling were “known criminal elements in the community”.
“I don’t see any evidence of it being a race thing, but now with all of this media hype, people are starting to think that way and that could lead to people [acting that way].”
A resident told Daily Maverick that he saw “too many guys who died, some got burnt to the point [that] I cried because to see someone getting burnt alive is unacceptable.
“I was thinking, how could you do something like that? We [were] protecting our families and even our police were more worried about their families than they were about the people of Phoenix. When I saw Black people burning, I just cried. How can they do something like that?”
On Monday, the KZN MEC for Community Safety and Liaison, Peggy Nkonyeni, and Social Development MEC Nonhlanhla Khoza met with some of the bereaved families from the areas. A team of social workers would be working with the families to provide survivors with “psychosocial support, social relief of distress and other government interventions”, said the MECs.
Nkonyeni urged families to report missing members “and to assist police with information which will lead to more arrests and convictions”.
“Government is still shocked that people were murdered in broad daylight while walking or driving on the public roads,” said Nkonyeni.
“We call on the communities to remain calm while the police are continuing with investigations. The arrest of 10 people linked to these murders should bring confidence to the public that our government is not sitting on its laurels, but working around the clock to ensure those involved in these brutal murders pay for their sins.”
Khoza said what happened in the area “should be called a massacre”.
“We have seen a number of people who are dead in this incident. It is very hard to swallow what we have heard and seen, people being murdered in cold blood.” DM