July Unrest: Phoenix crimes remain an open wound for communities

Religious leaders, members of civil society along with the KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive, led by Premier Sihle Zikalala last year walked the streets of Phoenix and the neighbouring township of Bhambayi in aid of peace between the two fractured communities following the mass riots and looting last July. Picture: Supplied.

Religious leaders, members of civil society along with the KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive, led by Premier Sihle Zikalala last year walked the streets of Phoenix and the neighbouring township of Bhambayi in aid of peace between the two fractured communities following the mass riots and looting last July. Picture: Supplied.

Published Jul 10, 2022


Sharing its name with a bird believed to be capable of being reborn from the ashes of its death, the Durban suburb of Phoenix is far from birthing itself into a peaceful place where communities of various races live harmoniously.

The suburb, situated north from Durban, still bears a tense underlying atmosphere with mistrust at its centre as the communities are still reeling from the racially-fuelled attacks that engulfed it a year ago.

At least 36 people were killed in Phoenix, when the July riots and looting spread across KwaZulu-Natal.

Residents living in Phoenix, like other areas, took a stand to protect their homes and businesses from the looting.

However, the situation in Phoenix took a turn for the worst when protecting livelihoods and properties were no longer the cause for their actions.

It turned into a racial affair when people of Indian descent living in Phoenix allegedly started killing black people living in and around the area.

Many of those killed were innocent victims caught in the racial rage.

Phoenix residents put up barricades to protect their homes and businesses from the looting; however these community-guarded make-shift barricades were used as a tool to fuel racial tension between the communities.

It was alleged that these blockades, put up by those among the Indian community, were then used to block African people from entering and moving within the community. This led to clashes between the Indian and African communities, with allegations that some Indian folk went on the hunt to track down and kill black people.

More than 2435 cases relating to criminal activity in the civil unrest last year are on the court roll, with convictions obtained in at least 50 cases.

In Phoenix, 164 cases were investigated, 120 are still under investigation, with 69 suspects arrested for various crimes.

Thirty-six of these suspects were arrested for their alleged roles in the murder of 35 people, while 31 people have been arrested for attempted murder.

This is according to Defence Minister Thandi Modise, speaking at a briefing by the justice, crime prevention and security cluster (JCPS) on Friday on prosecutions after the riots and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

While the physical barricades have been brought down, peace-building initiatives between the Indian and African communities in and around Phoenix are slow.

Last month, the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government launched a programme to carry out social cohesion programmes among the Indian and African communities.

KZN Education MEC Kwazi Mshengu led the official launch in Inanda, north of Durban.

Local pastor Devon Moodley, who has been at the forefront of peace initiatives between Indians and Africans in the area, said the social cohesion project was a work in progress and rebuilding trust between the communities will take years.

“Over the years, Indian and black communities had lived side by side enjoying a peaceful co-existence. The July unrest destroyed a lot of work that had been done. But we’re hopeful that eventually communities will find each other again for the sake of peace and future generations,” he said.

At that time, Bhambayi resident Chris Biyela was the convener of the peace committee that Minister of Police Bheki Cele set up to investigate and quell violence in Phoenix and the surrounding areas.

The committee was made up of residents from Bhambayi, Phoenix, Zwelisha and Amaoti, who had a mandate from their communities to push for justice and see all those responsible for the murders jailed.

At the Human Rights Commission hearings, Biyela testified about his experience of the unrest on July 12, when he was allegedly slapped, insulted and removed from his car by a group of Indian men.

He said he was on his way to his home in Bhambayi, a township that surrounds the Phoenix area.

When he was asked if he felt it was possible that reconciliation programmes would work for black and Indian communities in Phoenix, Biyela said it would only work if Indians acknowledged their racism.

“We are still grieving and feeling the pain of what we went through. The community of Phoenix has not yet shown their remorse for what they have done, slaughtering black people.

“What we see is arrogance and pride,” he said.

Another activist Zinzi Nyuswa, who was also a member of the peace committee, said the peace initiatives were “only for show”. She said social cohesion was being shoved down their throats through cut-and-paste solutions.

Nyuswa said the people of Bhambayi were still living in fear and trauma after their family members were gruesomely killed.

One such family was that of Delani Khumalo, an internationally acclaimed choreographer, who was killed in Phoenix during the July unrest.

His sister, Sizo Khumalo said their family were still heartbroken by her brother’s horrific death as “he was our last hope in the family and the killers just took him away”.

Khumalo said she still struggled to fathom why her brother and cousin were killed in such a heinous manner when they were attacked and their bodies burnt.

She said their family was still waiting for justice to be served as there had been no arrests made related to her brothers’ murder.

Marvin Govender of the Phoenix Residents Association said they stood with the victims’ families and wanted the perpetrators to be brought to book.

“We want to reconcile and move forward to build our country.

“The families who have been grieving for a year now want closure and we also join them in the call to have these criminal cases given priority. It seems as if the wheels of justice are turning very slowly,” Govender said.

On the peace-building initiatives, Govender said they were “taking it one step and one building block at a time”.

“These communities have been living together for years and they do not live independent of each other. We need to ensure these peace-building efforts continue and each community is not pitted against each other,” he said.

Govender also called on law enforcement to ensure that those who poorly posted and commented on social media also be brought to book for fanning the flames of racial divide.

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