Wounds of injustice continue to fester in KZN on tense second anniversary of July riots
The riots and looting of July 2021 left a seemingly endless trail of economic mystery for many in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. In Phoenix, families continue to mourn loved ones who fell victim to vigilante attacks, while demanding justice from police and government. Many in South Africa fear a new wave of violence may be imminent in the wake of recent fiery attacks on trucks in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo.
The Jeena Wholesale Centre, just outside Umlazi township, south of Durban, is still a black skeleton of a burnt-out building, a grim symbol of the July riots that took place in parts of KwaZulu-Natal and some parts of Gauteng exactly two years ago.
Read more in Daily Maverick: No shops, no jobs – KZN malls and hawkers alike still struggling to recover from looting mayhem
While many towns and cities have rebuilt and refurbished places that were looted and or torched during the violence that was described by President Cyril Ramaphosa as “insurrection” perpetrated around “ethnic mobilisation”, this place is still standing, as a reminder to all and sundry about what happened during the weeklong mayhem, which resulted in the death of more than 350 people, led to the closure of shops and factories, with the total cost to the economy said to be above R50-billion.
The chaos and mayhem were triggered by political allies of the former president Jacob Zuma, in reaction to his incarceration for contempt of court.
According to Statistics South Africa, the July 2021 riots resulted in huge job losses as they interrupted a four-quarter economic growth streak, with GDP contracting by 1.5% in the third quarter. The riots, it said, were the most expensive in post-apartheid South Africa.
The torching of 16 trucks in KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces in the past few days has heightened fears of a repeat of that dark period and reinforced the sentiments that the country is still wrestling with profound political and economic challenges.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Authorities on high alert after truck torchings coincide with anniversary of 2021 riots
Still counting the cost
The Jeena Wholesale and surrounding wholesales were a hive of activity prior to the riots, with thousands of shoppers moving around and buying anything from groceries, bedding, clothes and even livestock.
Balungile Ngcobo (51) is one of the long-standing hawkers outside the Jeena Wholesale Centre.
She sells fruits and vegetables, with which she feeds six members of her family, including her grandchildren. She says life and business have not been the same after the riots.
“People who came to buy groceries passed through us and bought from us. There were also people who came to buy goats and once they [were] done they bought stuff from us. Now there are only a few people passing here. If it goes on like this I will have to shut down and stay at home myself,”
Ngcobo said the situation is bad that they are not making enough money to be able to pay R1,200 tri-monthly rent for their stalls to the eThekwini Municipality.
“We have recently spoken to the authorities about giving us a reprieve from paying rent because we are not making any money here. The July riots was a death knell for many of us because many of our fellow hawkers, people who had been trading here for decades, had to close down. The owners of this centre have not yet said whether they are going to reopen,” she said.
As Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal succumbed to six days of violence in July 2021, Phoenix saw a strange phenomenon.
Phoenix has a predominantly Indian population and is located about 25 km northwest of Durban. Here, African people — even those who were residents of Phoenix — were reportedly targeted, attacked and killed, allegedly by vigilante groups which had formed in the name of “protecting the community” from looters. Residents took up arms such as pangas, baseball bats, revolvers and automatic rifles, forming vigilante groups and manned impromptu roadblocks.
Between 12 and 15 July, vigilante violence claimed 36 lives, 33 of them African and three of Indian descent.
The incidents were later dubbed by some as the Phoenix Massacre. For the victims of this violence and their families, the anniversary brings nothing but pain and memories of the loved ones who were killed brutally.
They say government and the police have failed them, as they have not been able to bring perpetrators of this violence to account.
They point to the case of Mondli Majola, who was killed in Phoenix during the July unrest. The post-mortem revealed that he had died from a gunshot wound to the face and stab wounds on his thigh.
The three men arrested for his murder, brothers Dylan and Ned Govender and Jeetendra Jaikissoon, were acquitted on the charge of murder on the grounds of lack of evidence.
Zibuyile Matyhobo, a peace convenor and a survivor of the Phoenix attacks, said she had been forced to take a female friend to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital when she came under attack from Indian vigilante groups. Her friend was declared dead on arrival at the hospital after they were stopped from one impromptu roadblock to another. She had to be escorted by the police out of Phoenix.
Matyobo said victims and their families were also angered by a lack of justice and punishment for the perpetrators.
“It is hard for the victims to find closure. It is hard for the victims and their families to forgive because nobody in the Phoenix community had come forward and apologised,” she said.
Her sentiments were echoed by Mxolisi Myeni, another member of the peace committee and a resident of Phoenix who witnessed some of these incidents first-hand.
“We feel that our government, the police and the eThekwini Municipality officials have all failed us. They had promised us swift justice but up to now nobody has been convicted for the murders of our people. People want justice because many people were killed for being black. None of those people were killed looting and stealing in people’s homes or shops. Most of them were killed as they walked or were driving on the road. The people who killed them are walking free, nobody is made to account for the murders,” Myeni said.
Many of those who lost their jobs in the aftermath of the July riots are still jobless.
Bafana Shozi, a 33-year-old man from Bottlebrush informal settlement in Chatsworth, said the clothing shops in which he worked at The Ridge shopping mall, have closed down and laid off all staff.
“To me this period bring bad memories. I was working but now I am not and I am struggling to feed and school my two kids. This is very painful to me because it makes me feel inadequate,” he said. DM