DM168

DM168 INVESTIGATION

July unrest: What really happened in Phoenix?

Members of the Phoenix Community Policing Forum, a grassroots mobilisation group involving local residents, sit around a tyre set ablaze while on a lookout in Durban on 20 July 2021. (Photo: MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Communities come to grips with the brutality that occurred in the Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, suburbs of Phoenix and Chatsworth.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

In a press conference held this week specifically to address what happened in the Durban suburb of Phoenix during the July unrest, Police Minister Bheki Cele said: “We trust that today we can set the record straight by laying bare the facts – the truth.”

What Cele was referring to were the rumours and misinformation that have spread, largely online, related to what has become known as the Phoenix massacre. Cele’s media briefing, in which he appeared alongside KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala, was his attempt to draw a line at the brutal few days which saw the suburb become, in Cele’s words, “the epicentre of heinous criminal and racist incidents”. 

Said Cele: “The events in Phoenix, which I have outlined, have claimed the lives of 36 people.”

Six days earlier, a few dozen people had gathered in little groups in King Dinuzulu Park in Durban’s CBD. Participants were almost matched in number by police and soldiers, with authorities in no mood to take chances. The occasion: a “Justice for Victims of Phoenix Massacre” protest, led by former EFF provincial leader Jackie Shandu.

“We are not mad; we are not troublemakers!” Shandu insisted to DM168. He alleged that 74 murders could be directly linked to the massacre, of which 43 were unclaimed bodies. 

“It was a senseless, unprovoked, hate-filled onslaught,” Shandu charged.

During the looting, Shandu said, no residential communities were attacked. No suburban or township homes were ransacked.

“People were going to big shopping centres because they are hungry and because they wanted to take fast-moving consumer goods. Not a single person was attacked. There were no racial tensions [behind the looting].”

Yet what happened in Phoenix was, in Shandu’s version, motivated largely by racial hatred. He saw the looting as essentially providing a pretext for attacks on black people by Indian people. Shandu would be arrested three days later and charged with incitement to public violence for racially inflammatory statements he made in the course of the protest, including “One Indian, one bullet”.

Among Shandu’s allegations were that women were ripped out of cars and attacked, and that cars were burnt with passengers inside. He also claimed that one man was run over twice by a car, and that another was slit in the chest so that his intestines spilled out.

At the time, these claims may have sounded outlandish in their barbarity. But Cele would in effect confirm a number of these incidents the following week, announcing that two victims were burnt to death, one was stabbed to death and one run over by a car. Media reports verified, meanwhile, that 25-year-old Zandile Mthembu was dragged out of her car in Phoenix, with the vehicle subsequently set alight. Local churches would proceed to club together to purchase Mthembu a replacement car as a gesture of goodwill.

Actions of such brutality cannot easily be squared with the line that Phoenix residents were merely doing what it took to protect their community. Yet until Cele’s briefing, authorities and journalists strained to present the bloodshed as framed by some degree of moral equivalence on each side: vigilantes went too far, but they were under tremendous pressure from looters. 

When we visited the suburb two weeks after the unrest, Phoenix was bustling with activity. Remnants of burnt tyres from where residents had set up barricades were the only visible reminders of the horror that took place here. These barricades protected the major arteries leading into the town centre, and were the base from which multiple attacks on black people were launched.

At the Phoenix morgue, an employee who spoke off the record suggested a simple calculation would provide an estimate as to the number of deaths directly linked to the unrest.

“We had about 128 bodies in a period of three days, from the 12th to the 14th, and we normally get between 60 and 70 bodies a week,” she said.

Asked if she believed what happened in Phoenix was a massacre, she was direct.

“Yes, I do,” she said.

“I don’t know how many people have to die to [technically] constitute a massacre, but whatever name you want to give it – there was an exponentially high number of deaths of mainly black Africans.”

She said that probably fewer than five of the bodies were Indian people.

Thabane Nomchalane, from Welbedacht, was shot in the leg and back, and was subject to racial abuse by vigilantes in Chatsworth. (Photo: Greg Nicolson)

DM168’s investigation has suggested at least 55 deaths linked to the unrest in Phoenix: 19 more than the official figure given by police. Complicating the situation, however, is the question of which geographical areas police count as falling within “Phoenix and surrounds”. We have included deaths in the suburb of Verulam; authorities may not.

What is clear is that interviews with witnesses and survivors have contributed to a picture of events in which the Phoenix residents, taking it upon themselves to man the barricades, appear in many instances, if not most, to have acted with wholly disproportionate violence and brutality.

In an area of Phoenix known as Southgate, 28-year-old Sandile Ntuli shares a house with his elderly aunt and uncle on one of the highest roads in this hilly suburb. 

Ntuli, a young man with a lean build, was limping badly when he appeared in the lounge. He said he had been attacked on Monday, 12 July. His story is particularly noteworthy because Ntuli knew his attackers intimately. They had attended the same school, an indication of the extent to which Indian and black communities mingled peacefully before the unrest.

Ntuli says that upon hearing of the looting and its effects on fuel reserves, he went with a friend to look for petrol. Down the road, they found the Total garage closed. After a wait there, they drove around 4km to the Shell garage near Greenbury Secondary School, only to find the road blocked.  

“We stopped there and panicked, because we didn’t know what to do,” Ntuli said.

They saw a silver Corolla speeding at them, and realised a friend was at the wheel. They asked him what was going on.

“The driver said that at the Shell garage, there is a gang of Indian people hitting cars with stones and shooting.”

The two cars drove in convoy up Greenbury Drive, a small highway leading to Southgate. There, a group of Indian men had blocked the road.

“They asked us where we were going, but let us through. But then they started hitting the car of my friend behind us. I put my head out to scream, ‘Hey, everyone knows us. We all went to school together!’”

Then he started hearing shooting. They drove on to Daleview Road, where his friend overtook them. 

“On the right-hand side, there was a group of Indian [people] shooting. I saw this guy I know. They started shooting at us too. We know these guys. We went to primary and secondary school together.”

Although still under fire, the car managed to escape. Around 20 metres from the scene, Ntuli realised that he was starting to bleed from his thigh. He had been shot twice, with the bullets still lodged in his leg. 

Ntuli’s story was typical of many. The layout of suburbs like Phoenix and Chatsworth sees predominantly Indian residents housed close to the suburb entry points and town centres, whereas black people tend to live higher up on the outskirts. To travel to their homes during the unrest, black people, by necessity, needed to pass through the barricades. But it was there that they were attacked, seemingly by trigger-happy young men.

Ntuli’s attackers have already been arrested. They were among the 10 suspects who have already appeared in the Verulam Magistrates’ Court. Ntuli says police did nothing, however, until “we went [to the police station] and said, ‘Please, we know these guys’”.   

This police inaction, too, was characteristic of the accounts of most of the survivors who spoke to DM168. Zanele Nkomo, whose 17-year-old son Zwandile was in hospital awaiting surgery after having been shot in his right femur while walking home after soccer practice, told us she saw no point in even reporting the matter to the police.

Ntuli asked, in anger: “No shops in Phoenix were looted, so how can they say they were shooting looters?”

His elderly uncle Benjy said that Sandile was well known in the community for being a good and helpful young man. He and his wife were fearfully considering whether they should try to move to Johannesburg, but he said they were pensioners and all they had was in Southgate.

“It has always been so peaceful here,” Benjy said, marvelling. 

Sandile Ntuli was one of the lucky ones who escaped with injuries. In Inanda township, multiple families were grieving the loss of a loved one in Phoenix.

Philisiwe Ngcobo’s disabled brother Bheki was seemingly shot at in his car before he was ripped from his vehicle and beaten to death. Philisiwe went to the morgue to identify his body.

“Their bodies had scars all over that look like they were from [cuts by] sharp objects like an axe or a machete,” Philisiwe told DM168. “What hurts us the most is that Bheki had [previously] been injured in his leg, which forced him to quit work. One could say he was almost paralysed. We asked ourselves how those [attackers] couldn’t see that and have mercy.” 

Sandile Ngomezulu’s 19-year-old brother Sanele, from Inanda, was killed at a roadblock in Phoenix. (Photo: Greg Nicolson)

Some families were open about the fact that their deceased relative had been engaged in looting – but not in Phoenix itself. This was the case with Sandile Ngomezulu, whose 19-year-old brother Sanele was killed at one of the barricades into Phoenix, returning home after looting elsewhere. While Sandile spoke, he cradled a framed photograph of his brother, an aspirant photographer who had just left school.

“We heard the story of what might have happened to my brother from a lady who was with him when it all happened. They had filled a Quantum minibus taxi and left home; they were going to loot. They managed to get some stuff, but on their way back into Phoenix were confronted by a group who started shooting at their vehicle. The group took the looted stuff. The occupants in the vehicle ran for their lives, leaving the vehicle, which was burnt by the group behind,” Sandile said.

“The lady who was with them told us one person was shot from the [taxi]. It turned out to be Sanele.”

Police Minister Cele said this week that 22 suspects had been arrested thus far for events in Phoenix. Of the first 10 suspects who have appeared in court thus far, however, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) told DM168 that they are charged with just one count of murder.

The untold story of Chatsworth

While what happened in Phoenix has been recorded to some degree, far less media attention has been paid to similar events in the suburb of Chatsworth. 

Yet authorities are aware that Chatsworth recorded similar brutality. In a community meeting held at Montarena High School on 17 July attended by both Premier Zikalala and Mineral Resources Minister Gwede Mantashe, Zikalala told the audience: “Chatsworth has lost between 13 and 20 people”.

A distraught Thandeka Mthembu says her son Siphamandla Mthembu (23) was shot in the head at a roadblock in Chatsworth. (Photo: Greg Nicolson)

It appears that the majority of people who died were residents of the township of Welbedacht. One was 23-year-old Siphamandla Mthembu, who was walking with his cousin Nkosikhona to fetch his stepfather’s TB medication at the local RK Kahn Hospital when he was shot in the head by vigilantes manning a barricade.

Siphamandla’s mother, Thandeka Mthembu, clutched her son’s photograph and mopped her eyes.

“He was just walking and he was shot in the head. He was my only hope. The only one helping with money. He helped build this house with his Nsfas money. He was my firstborn. He was a very, very good man,” she said.

“Maybe I need counselling, because I pinch myself now to see if I am still alive.”  

Other Welbedacht residents told DM168 that while being set upon by vigilantes, they were subjected to racial abuse. 

Thabani Nomchalane said that he was walking home from a friend’s place with another man when they found themselves surrounded.

“We told them that we are coming from a friend here in [house number] 1104 and we are going home. They told us we were lying, we are coming from looting. But we had nothing on us! They said: ‘All blacks are looting, how come you are not?’ They were hitting us with sticks, golf clubs, baseball bats. They had guns. One said: ‘Leave them, you can see they have nothing on them’.”

Nomchalane and his friend tried to run away, but were shot in the leg and back. They hid in the bushes where they lay overnight, and the following day managed to attract the attention of a metro cop who called an ambulance. 

‘Heroes who defended our community’

At the entrance to Chatsworth currently, a billboard proclaims: “PELICAN PHARMACY: WE SALUTE THE HEROES WHO DEFENDED OUR COMMUNITY.”

It is this attitude which continues to enrage many black residents, who say that insufficient remorse has been shown towards the loss of life in these suburbs.

At the July 17 community meeting in Chatsworth, a resident who identified himself only as “Pillay” summed up a common defence.

“Social media started coming about, saying, ‘Once we finish looting these places, we’re going to Indian houses.’ What is it that Indians are expected to do? What we did was we took to the streets and said we’re going to protect what we have worked so hard for. And that’s exactly what we did,” he said.

Tashleen Moodley’s 17-year-old son Faybian died in Verulam after he was shot while helping community members to protect the area from looting. (Photo: Greg Nicolson)

Tashleen Moodley lost her 17-year old son Faybian to the unrest in Verulam when he went out to assist the defence against looters.

“Gunshots were fired, and my son was shot in the crossfire,” Moodley told DM168, occasionally wiping away tears.

“When I got to the scene, he was already dead. It took me forever to get there because of all the roadblocks. When I got there, my child was not alive.”

Moodley does not know whether to attribute blame to the vigilantes manning the blockade or to the looters. Asked what she thinks happened in Phoenix, and how she responds to reports of the Phoenix massacre, Moodley chooses her words carefully.

“I think things were blown out of proportion. People did whatever they needed to save the shops. Maybe they went a bit too far. But it’s because of the community that we still have shops, and I’m grateful. I have a baby at home and I need milk.”

A Peace Committee has been established to try to mediate between different communities in Phoenix, but organisers warn that it will be a difficult road forward.

“I must admit the truth. As much as we talk peace, there are families who are really hurting and still very angry. It is not going to happen overnight,” convenor Saroj Govender told DM168.

“Phoenix is made up of two race groups: Indian [people] and black [people]. The lives of predominantly black people lost in the unrest is not acceptable. We have worked very hard over the years to overcome racism from the previous Group Areas Act.” DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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  • Tragic loss of life which clearly lies at the feet of the politicians accountable (sic!!) for our safety!! So much healing still required. The manufactured narrative from Cele and Zikalala in response needs the media to dissect and repudiate it, just as we locals do. They have ZERO insights into what really happened. The Zuma factions involvement is clear, just as it will be in the next few weeks. I look forward to you applying the same energy to the suspects in court so that more “truths” can be heard. Killing fellow citizens is abhorrent, equally so is glorifying looters deaths and actions in the name of peer pressure, hunger and fashion – END

  • What happened inPhoenix can be answered in one simple set of numbers – 1949.
    During the Durban riots of 1949, the Indian population were targeted and attacked with no protection at all. Their businesses were destroyed, they were hunted and killed and this has forever been part of the Indians historical memory in KZN.
    Perhaps this memory is what encouraged the Indians of a Phoenix to defend themselves so vehemently…..sadly to only repeat the atrocities they themselves endured 71 yrs ago.

  • If the Police did they job and did not boycott their work.
    Maybe this tragedy would not have happened.
    Arrest the Police
    Let them answer