Reflections on the ‘Phoenix massacre’

In August 2021, Bhambayi did not have a clinic, library or sports grounds, residents had to go to Phoenix to access public services. File photo by Mzi Velapi

Roadblocks set up by vigilantes during the violence in Phoenix were always going to lead to confrontation with residents of nearby townships as they rely on public services accessible only in the town.

“The firing of the firearms was plenty, it sounded like a car backfiring continuously and in different directions. At night you could actually see flashes of light from [gunfire] in the distance.” This is how 52-year-old resident of Phoenix and father of three, Vincent Naicker described the violence and shooting that took place in the area in July. The predominantly Indian suburb north of Durban became the centre of attention when 36 people were killed in what transpired as racially motivated vigilantism during the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.

During the debate in the National Council of Provinces last week on the recent public violence, looting and destruction of property, police minister Bheki Cele said that 36 were killed in Phoenix. In an earlier statement, he said police investigation showed that 30 of those who were killed, were shot. Two were burnt to death. One was stabbed and another was run over by a motor vehicle. Two others died from the brutal injuries they sustained in an assault.

“In total, police are investigating 52 cases of attempted murder and probing nine cases of common assault and 16 cases of assault GBH [grievous bodily harm],” said the police minister.

We met the 36-year-old, bedridden Joyce Mabuja, in her tiny two-roomed house which she shares with her mother, daughter and two sisters in Bhambayi. Mabuja is one of the victims that was shot in Phoenix in July. The frail, asthmatic mother of one, who arrived in Bhambayi in 2003 from the Eastern Cape, told Elitsha that she was on her way to the clinic when she was shot by a group of men in Phoenix. “I’m not sure how many were they but they came out of nowhere and from behind and they shot at me. I can’t remember much after that but I managed to walk back home and I threw myself down onto this bed. My family found me here and they took me to the clinic and I was immediately referred to Gandhi hospital. Then I was taken to King Edward hospital …then to another hospital near market and that is where I got help. They drained some foreign objects from the wounds,” she said.

Mabuja is unemployed and has worked as a part-time domestic worker. “It was not my appointment date at the clinic but I had difficulty in breathing and I had to go to the clinic to be on the oxygen,” she said.

Joyce Mabuja who was on her way to the clinic for asthma treatment was attacked in Phoenix during the riots that led to the killing of 36 people in the area in July. Produced by Mzi Velapi and Edited by Sindile Gulwa

19-year-old Thuto Shwaka, also from Bhambayi, told Elitsha about what he endured from “Indian men” who left in a river after he passed out. “My friend and I were going to play soccer at the grounds in Phoenix when we encountered a group of African teenagers who were chased by a white 4×4 bakkie with Indian men shooting at them. Because they were running towards us, we also ran because they were being shot at. I ran and hid in a river and they caught up with me. They beat us up asking where we were going and whether we had a gun in a backpack. Even though we gave them the backpack to check, and told them that we were on our way to the soccer fields, they beat us up. They were beating us with sticks, golf sticks and those standing a bit far were stoning us. One of them put a gun between my eyes and asked me to close my eyes. I don’t know what prevented him from shooting. One elderly man had a machete and he slapped me with it,” said Shwaka.

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Shwaka lives with his mother in a two-roomed shack not far from Mabuja. He finished school last year but he could not further his studies. “They broke my teeth, arm and I have wounds on my head. I’m not sure what type of stick they used but after they hit me with that stick on my head I became dizzy. I could hear them faintly saying that I was faking it. I dreamt that something was biting my feet and I realised that it was a crab biting me because I was bleeding from the machete wounds underneath my feet. My friend and I were rescued by one elderly woman who called our parents and I was taken to the clinic where I was stitched and a cast put on my arm,” he said.

19-year-old Thutho Shwaka says that he wants those arrested in cases involving vigilantism to be denied bail. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Phoenix at the centre of the local economy

From the interviews done with residents and community leaders from Phoenix and Bhambayi, it is clear that the illegal roadblocks that were set up by vigilantes in Phoenix targeted residents of neighbouring African townships who rely heavily on Phoenix for its economy. According to the president and founder of Phoenix Tenants and Residents Association, “Phoenix is an apartheid township and there is no development in surrounding townships as they are made out of shacks and RDP houses. People from these areas have to come to Phoenix for social services.”

Bhambayi-based community activist and member of the newly formed Peace Team, Blessing Nyuswa told Elitsha that people from Bhambayi depend on government services available only in Phoenix. “For healthcare we have to go to Phoenix, the public library is in Phoenix, the hospital is in Phoenix, if you want to shop at bigger stores, you must go to Phoenix,” said Nyuswa.

Bhambayi does not have health, sports or library facilities and residents have to go to Phoenix to access these. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Labour services vs employer relationship between the communities

According to Govender, the relationship between the two communities before the massacre was cordial and “intertwined”. “People from the neighbouring townships offer their labour skills like painting and plumbing to the residents of Phoenix. Lots of guys get picked up by locals for day jobs. You have lots of maids coming from the townships,” he said.

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Govender’s sentiments were echoed by Vincent Naicker who made reference to the by-the-road job seekers who get picked up by “Indian contractors” for jobs. “Black people come into our area for jobs and are given jobs. There have been no tensions before,” he said.

Causes of massacre

Govender said the causes of the violence and killings are “multi-layered”. He told Elitsha that there was looting of shops in the area, attacks on people’s homes by invaders who were bussed into the area. “There was also voicenotes circulating on social media about how black people were going to enter the homes of Indians and whites once they were done with the shops. The voicenotes created panic and hysteria. There is little development in surrounding black townships as there are no decent houses except the RDP houses that are in bad shape and shacks which make these communities rely on Phoenix, which is an apartheid township. There was vigilantism and a little bit of racism. But also the media and politicians made it seem like it was a racial war. There were 13 people who were killed on the river banks in Pietermaritzburg but that did not make the news,” he said.

Vincent Naicker lamented the absence of the police during the unrest as this inaction led to community members barricading the roads in order to “protect their homes and families”. “The private security were telling us that the police were asking for bullets from them. The private security was backing the police,” he said.

Meanwhile 42-year-old resident of Phoenix, Rossane Pillay said that someone speaking with a “Zulu accent” said, as he was passing by the flats she stays in, that they were “coming back”. “Most people who stay in this complex are Indians so it is clear who the message was intended for,” she said.

Residents of Phoenix say that the police were absent during the violence that resulted in 36 people being killed in July. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Blessing Nyuswa, a community activist based in Bhambayi said that both racism and criminality played a role during the massacre in Phoenix. “I can’t say all Indians are racist but there was racist element in what they did. Also the criminal element was also there, it was much more than just protecting themselves,” said Nyuswa.

Richard Pillay, the son of the ex-Robben island prisoner, Kisten ” Zed” Moonsamy, said that he was one of the people trying to educate the Phoenix residents not to take part in the “roadblocks”. “My late dad would not have agreed with that approach. Innocent people lost their lives,” said Pillay.

Both Mabuja and Shwaka said that they want to see justice. “I want them to not get bail. I was beaten up for no reason. We didn’t even have weapons on us to prove that we were looking for trouble,” said Shwaka.

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