Riots in South Africa: How the legacy of apartheid sparked race riots in Phoenix and left dozens dead


Phoenix, South Africa – Thirty-six years separated the infamous race riots of 1949 and 1985 in this region, when people of African and South Asian descent – one against each other in the lower rungs of the apartheid system – killed each other in bubbles of resentment. .

Last month, after another 36 years of recent riots, Phoenix and surrounding cities were in flames again.

Amid a week-long frenzy of looting, arson, and clashes that killed at least 342 people in two South African provinces, 36 were killed in this patchwork of poor black towns and more developed “Indian” suburbs that coexisted peacefully, albeit unevenly. The country’s police chief said most of the dead were black, and most of the suspected killers were Indian this week.

Interviews with nearly two dozen people — including victims, their family members, community leaders, politicians, business owners, and others — were filled with disbelief. Decades of work have been done in building peaceful coexistence. Everyone wondered the same thing: How did she suddenly collapse?

The answer, he believes, was rooted in South Africa’s failure to heal the divisions created by apartheid. The country may have called itself the rainbow nation, but high walls of income and opportunity still separate its lines.

The town of Zwelicha can be seen up a street in the Durban suburb of Phoenix on July 29.
The town of Zwelicha can be seen up a street in the Durban suburb of Phoenix on July 29.

The wave of looting in urban areas of Johannesburg and Durban, two of South Africa’s largest cities, was already raging days ago when Thoto Shwaka, 18, and friends decided to gather for a small football game in an empty stadium in Phoenix. , which has a population of about 200,000, is mostly of South Asian descent who were brought to South Africa by the British colonial government more than 100 years ago as farm and railway workers.

Television news was broadcasting live footage of mostly black crowds pouring out of stores and stores with whatever they could get their hands on. Such footage was interspersed with interviews with mostly white and Indian men in relatively affluent neighborhoods who said they armed themselves in case thieves reached their homes. He said Shawqa and his friends were stopped by one of these groups.

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“We ran into a group of Indian men who told us we couldn’t pass there and they sent us away,” he recalls one recent day at home. “Then they accused us of being part of the group of people who were looting us and started beating us.”

[‘I am broken’: South African communities are gutted by a wave of looting, arson and loss]

Shawqa said that despite their denials, a man forced him to tie his feet with a rope and told him to walk.

When Showaka could not, and fell, the man and his accomplices hit his feet with the back of a sickle and hit him with stones until he lost consciousness.

Hundreds were injured in the days of violence, including Zainhal’s sister Mabuga, 21, on the right.

Nearly a month after the violence broke out, South African police have come forward with a clearer picture of what happened.

On July 12, days before President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered thousands of reservists to be deployed to the area, Phoenix residents began setting up checkpoints, according to Becky Seely, the country’s top police official.

“The problems started when people at the checkpoints became vigilant and started racial profiling of people, preventing them from entering the suburb,” Seely said at a press conference on Tuesday, adding that the targets were “mainly Africans.” Seely did not explain why there were so few policemen to intervene, leaving room for vigilance.

Tensions quickly escalated, and people on both sides brought weapons to the checkpoints. Shots were fired, people scattered and recriminations took place all over Phoenix and nearby settlements. “People were slaughtered with bush knives,” Seely said. Vehicles were set on fire.

“We are concerned about a possible outbreak of racial tension in the future,” Sihel Zikalala, chief minister of KwaZulu-Natal, the province where Phoenix is ​​located, said at the same press conference. He described the events of July 12 as a “massacre”.

In all, 30 were shot dead. Two burned to death. One of them was stabbed and the other was run over by a truck. Two others died of injuries from the attacks. All but three of the dead were black.

South African soldiers stand guard on July 29 on the outskirts of the Phoenix Highway as the road was closed during the unrest and where much of the violence occurred in the Durban region.
South African soldiers stand guard on July 29 on the outskirts of the Phoenix Highway as the road was closed during the unrest and where much of the violence occurred in the Durban region.

Police deployed 31 private investigators to the area in the weeks that followed, and opened 52 attempted murder cases, 25 assault cases and other cases against a small number of people accused of spreading inflammatory misinformation online. They confiscated 152 weapons from “private security companies” and 112 others from private citizens.

The debate over private gun ownership in South Africa roughly mirrors that in the United States.

“Discussions about guns are very emotional, and pro-gun groups are mostly conservative, white, and similar to the National Rifle Association in the United States,” said Jay Lamb, an expert on urban crime and policing at Stellenbosch University. “Whereas most of the gun violence that occurs in South Africa takes place in poor, black towns.”

The South African police force recently pushed for a ban on firearms licensing for private citizens, but faced massive opposition from gun owners. South Africa already requires owners to be over 21 years old, and to undergo background checks and aptitude tests.

“Obviously there has been a failure in the police work,” Lamb said of what happened in Phoenix. “In those cases, people may feel it is justified to use vigilance.”

No guarantee, no guarantee

Court proceedings are underway against dozens of alleged perpetrators of the violence in Phoenix. Outside the courtroom last week, large crowds of protesters were dismissed by police and soldiers. The loudest chant was “No bail, no bail.”

Fukani Ndlovu, regional treasurer of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters Party, which supports a radical vision of racial justice based on the redistribution of land from those who benefited from the apartheid of the black majority.

Supporters of the ruling African National Congress, which promotes a more conciliatory racist rhetoric, have stressed that the killings must not drive a wedge between societies that have become dependent on one another for jobs and services.

“We must not allow the events of the past weeks to divide us,” said Kwazi Mschengo, a regional ANC official, standing on the sidelines. of protest. “We are one people. We need to build a united and non-racial South Africa.”

[Deadly riots in South Africa are a ‘huge tremor’ for Africa’s most renowned liberation party]

The ANC has struggled to achieve this goal since the end of apartheid in 1994. The party inherited a state that was rigidly divided along ethnic lines in almost all walks of life by the apartheid government. All towns were racially segregated under the Group Territories Act, which imposed a hierarchical apartheid system of privileges and services on the geography of South Africa.

Bhikinkosi Ngkubo’s family found his body at a local mortuary with a deep cut to his neck. He was 35 years old, a welder and the sole breadwinner of his family.

“My son went out to fill his car with petrol and never came back,” said Thuleel Ngkubo, 59, Bikinkosi’s mother.

“We are scared now,” said Bikinkosi’s sister, Felicoy Ngkubo. “It is much better when we are walking in groups rather than alone.”

The Indian community in Phoenix isn’t wealthy by South African standards, but it is clearly better off than the nearby poor black communities suffering from water and electricity shortages — public services that the ANC government has yet to reliably provide after nearly three decades in power.

While the two societies depend on each other, racism and resentment stretch back at least 120 years when the young Mahatma Gandhi lived in Phoenix, where he published a newspaper and was a community leader. Despite his saintly reputation elsewhere, his racist views toward Africans have been elaborated by South African scholars, and the black South African community remembers him as an advocate for notions of supremacy that underpinned what would eventually become apartheid. So-called South African Indians make up about 2.5 percent of the country’s population.

[What did Mahatma Gandhi think of black people?]

The white community, which makes up nearly 10 percent of the population, was relatively unaffected by the violence in July, an indication of how disconnected they are from the rest of South Africans compared to the Indian community.

“What happened here again is a scourge on humanity and shows the failure of the democratic project,” said Amina Fakhoud, an inter-ethnic and interfaith activist in Phoenix. “Because of the negligence that occurred [since apartheid ended]We have shot ourselves as a society by not working toward equality.”

This disparity is most pronounced in black towns such as Kwamashu, just south of Phoenix.

Amaoti, a section of Inanda about 12 miles northwest of central Durban, can be seen in the distance.
Amaoti, a section of Inanda about 12 miles northwest of central Durban, can be seen in the distance.

When looting began to spread across KwaZulu-Natal, some members of the community saw there an opportunity to take away essential goods such as refrigerators and sofas that would normally be very expensive. But most stayed indoors out of fear that blacks would be seen en masse as thieves and arrested or worse.

“We don’t own anything. We are consumers and bystanders of our economy,” said Mlamuli Changasi, president of the local branch of the Federation of Black Businessmen, a national organization. “What happened is not about ‘Indians and Africans,’ it is about criminals who have taken the law into their own hands.”

Tell us: Why did they kill us?

As violence escalated on July 12, Fabian Modly, the eldest son of a young single mother living in a troubled neighborhood, rushed to one of the checkpoints that appeared. He was shot dead there in disputed circumstances.

Looking back on that day, his mother, Tachlin, is not only sad, but angry at the absence of the police. Vibian, 18, had always acted older than his age, but she wished he’d been like a kid that day.

Tachlyn Modly, a mother of three, lost her 18-year-old son, Vibian, when he was shot and killed in the unrest.
Tachlyn Modly, a mother of three, lost her 18-year-old son, Vibian, when he was shot and killed in the unrest.

“It wasn’t his place to help a roadblock, we have law enforcement, we have police. If our president could deploy the army to confront COVID-19,” she said before continuing. “My child is not a soldier, he shouldn’t have been there.”

On the way to meet with committee members in the town of Bahambay, a man pointed a gun at an Indian driver hired by the Washington Post.

Supporters of the political party, the African National Congress (ANC) protest outside the courthouse in Verulam, where seven suspects arrested for various crimes during the recent unrest are set to seek bail in Durban on July 30, 2021 (Photo by Gulshan Khan/The Washington Post )(Gulshan Khan/FTWP)

Leaders in the black towns surrounding Phoenix are demanding justice — and investment in their communities — before they consider reconciliation.

Some participate in peace committees, set up by elected local officials, which aim to promote dialogue between communities. But the tension is clear.

At a later arranged meeting, Blessing Nyuswa, one of the commission’s meeting organisers, said that although many in Bahambay had relied on Phoenix for jobs, schools and clinics, they were reluctant to return, even though it might worsen their economic situation.

“The people in Bahambay say to me, ‘Before you tell us about peace, grace, tell us: Why did they kill us?’” ” She said.

The answer I gave them was a condemnation of South Africa’s pursuit of racial justice in the decades since the end of apartheid.

“We didn’t get freedom,” she said. “We only have democracy.”

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