Victim families say July unrest report falls short

During the unrest, more than 350 people lost their lives, and the country suffered nearly R50 billion in damages. Photo by Nokulunga Majola

Critics say the report on the July 2021 unrest is inadequate to understand the context behind the violence as it does not make links between the unrest and the arrest of Jacob Zuma.

The long-awaited report on the July 2021 unrest in South Africa, jointly conducted by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) and the Cultural, Religious, and Linguistic Rights Commission (CRL), was released three weeks ago. According to the report, the violence was not merely a spontaneous outbreak but rather the result of deep-rooted social and political issues spurred on by organised instigation. Incidents such as highway blockades, property destruction, and attacks on communication facilities and ATMs were orchestrated, indicating substantial planning and resources.

Primary actors leading destructive acts and mobilising secondary actors for looting were identified in the evidence. The timing of the unrest, coinciding with the incarceration of former president Jacob Zuma, blurred the lines between political and criminal motivations. The report reveals a period of heightened social and political tension, with intelligence warnings dating back to December 2020 about threats targeting specific regions and demographics. Despite this, clear evidence identifying specific groups or
individuals behind the unrest remains elusive.

The report attributes the violence to systemic issues such as economic challenges, unemployment, lawlessness, discrimination, and the politicisation of the security sector. It emphasises the need for decisive action to address underlying grievances and prevent future unrest.

In November 2021, the SAHRC held public hearings where the victims of the Phoenix Massacre said they were targeted based on their skin colour. In the same hearings, the police commissioner admitted that the police were overstretched during the unrest that tore through KZN and Gauteng.

In response to the report, stakeholders are called upon to engage in honest reflection, collaborative efforts, and meaningful change to foster a more inclusive and prosperous South Africa. The commission urges organisations and government departments implicated in the report to respond within 60 days and indicate their intentions to address the findings and recommendations.

During the unrest, more than 350 people lost their lives, and the damages to commercial properties were estimated to be near R50-billion. The SAHRC held eight months of public hearings from November 2021 to June 2022. The 252-page report, released on 29 January 2024, focuses on the events in the Durban suburb of Phoenix, where racial tensions escalated during the unrest. However, it lacks specific details of evidence collected, raising doubt about its comprehensiveness. Its recommendations include the fostering of healing between black and Indian communities through inter-sport activities and commemorating the lives lost during the unrest with a government-built statue.

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Responses to the report

Thapelo Mohapi from Abahlali Basemjondolo, expresses disappointment with the report’s focus on law enforcement rather than the socio-economic inequalities managed by the law. “The commission failed to link the riots to the arrests of the former president when all evidence was there. Abahlali baseMjondolo gave evidence of the WhatsApp messaging of the instigators communicating prior the riots. This was a day after the arrest of the former president. People wrote in the WhatsApp group that they wanted to burn the chairperson of the [ANC] in KZN because he was the reason for the arrest of the former president. The commission has also failed the people of Bhambayi, Zwelisha and Amaoti who were killed in a racial act by the Indian community. However, we welcome the report by the CRL which states the inequality crisis between the two communities. The education that is provided in the black communities is inferior to that which is provided to the Indian community,” Mohapi says.

Victims and affected communities are expressing their dissatisfaction with the report, citing its failure to adequately represent their experiences and concerns. Zithobile Matyhobo, a member of the community organisation Peace and Light established in 2022 to assist victims of the 2021 violence, says that they are awaiting responses from relevant departments before taking legal action for assistance and justice. Matyhobo said that victims feel like they are left out as the report doesn’t document their experience.

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, edited by Sindile Gulwa

When Elitsha visited the area in August 2021, 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 arrived in Bhambayi in 2003 from the Eastern Cape. She was on her way to the clinic when she was shot by a group of men in Phoenix.

Blessing Nyoni from the Peace Committee of Bhambayi voices similar disappointment, noting the report’s lack of focus on victims and its surprising dismissal of any link between the unrest and Zuma’s arrest. “There is nothing ‘wow’ about the report, there is nothing about the victims and also I am surprised they say it had nothing to do with the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma. All the walls were written free Zuma. So why now is the report saying there is no link?” Nyoni says.

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She adds that on the Phoenix side of it, the violence was fuelled by an anger and pain that the Indian community feel towards the black community.

“There are old wounds that have not healed, and this report is not doing anything to help in healing those wounds; instead it is covering it up. For me, the report was not about us, people from the ground who know experienced everything that was happening, people who lost their loved ones, people who were affected by the violence one way or the other. It doesn’t really represent what was said or happened. Lots of people have died in my community who were injured at the time. There are others who are still alive, but they are not really interested in all of this as they feel they were not involved in anything from the beginning and their cases were ignored,” says Nyoni.

Wonderboy Caluza from Inanda, who lost his son during the unrest similarly feels that the victims and those directly affected by the violence were not included in this report. His son Sandile Caluza was 18 years old and the eldest of three siblings. His father described him as a God-fearing child who loved school. He said that most of the people who lost their loved ones, especially those that were bread winners are still waiting for compensation. “Businesses were compensated but what about us? This report is not being fair, and it doesn’t really explain or give us closure as to what happened during that week,” he said.

He mentioned that they are looking at getting a lawyer to represent them so that they can get closure and answers as well as compensation for all their suffering. Caluza’s son went missing on 12 July 2021 and was found three days later at the state mortuary with stab and gunshot wounds. His father says they still don’t know what happened to him.

Most families of the victims say they don’t care much about the report as it tells them nothing other than what they already know.

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