The Violent Black Riots of July 2021: Still suffering with no end in sight – Phoenix survivors relive horrific vigilante attacks of 2021


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[Last year, Zuma's people got the Blacks to engage in the greatest violence South Africa has ever seen (from the Blacks). I still need to do a video about the military angle of those events. I did a video with lots of the film footage from then. But there's a more important analysis I need to do. In Phoenix the Blacks went to go and kill the Indians, but it backfired on them when the Indians killed the Blacks! Now, a year later the Blacks are crying about their victimhood! It's funny actually. Jan]

Then and now: Phoenix was a flashpoint during the riots that shook KwaZulu-Natal in July 2021. A year later, survivors and mourners gather to take stock of a tragic time.

In July 2021, after the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court, KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng were engulfed in violence, looting and unrest.

Social media circulated fake news about Indian communities under siege, and in response residents of many suburbs armed themselves, barricaded their neighbourhoods and repelled people intent on destruction and looting.

In the former Indian township of Phoenix, residents armed with pangas, axes, knives and guns allegedly attacked black people they said were trying to get through their barricades, killing and injuring many. Vehicles were also set alight.

The number of dead in Phoenix was initially put at 36 by the police, three Indian and 33 black people. Many victims managed to escape, but with serious injuries, according to organisers of a peace committee established after the riots.

Briefing the media on Friday, Defence Minister Thandi Modise said 64 cases were being investigated in Phoenix: “A total of 69 suspects were arrested for various crimes, 36 of these were arrested for their alleged respective role in the murder of 35 people and 31 people were arrested for attempted murder.”

It is not clear how many people were killed by the vigilantes. As we reported in 2021, leaders from churches, civic organisations, NGOs and political parties formed a 15-member PINK (Phoenix, Inanda, Ntuzuma and KwaMashu) peace and development committee to avert total war between the communities.

They poured petrol into my vehicle and said they were going to burn us inside. I pleaded with them to shoot us instead of burning us alive

At the time, convenor Sham Maharaj said there was a “lot of anger and anxiety from all communities. The Indian communities were concerned about their safety while the black communities were very angry about the killings in Phoenix. Some of the leaders from black communities said they were struggling to calm their communities down.

“We told our counterparts from the other communities that we don’t condone racial violence and the people who perpetrated the killing must be arrested and face prosecution. We [said] the murders were committed by certain people, not the whole community of Phoenix,” said Maharaj at the time.

A year later, on 25 June, a group of survivors of the vigilante violence met for the first time in the Maotana Hall, in Inanda, north of Durban. They met to update and comfort each other, receive counselling and seek justice almost a year after incidents that nearly plunged KwaZulu-Natal into interracial warfare.

Widowed Nonhlanhla Mntambo (46) was among the survivors of the vigilante violence in Phoenix.

Mntambo’s husband was one of the people killed. She said he had been without petrol for days when he decided to venture into Phoenix with his 23-year-old nephew and a fellow taxi owner to seek fuel.

“After hours passed without him returning I became worried and called him on his phone. The phone was answered by a rude man who called me ‘bitch’, who said ‘you must come to fetch this c**t, he is dead’.

“He continued swearing and dropped the phone before I could ask him anything. When I called again the phone went on voicemail,” she said.

Police officers were scared

The next day she went to the local police station where officers told her they were too scared to venture into Phoenix for fear of being attacked.

Days passed before she was given a police escort – on the day Police Minister Bheki Cele visited Phoenix and surrounding areas.

“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I went to the Phoenix mortuary and saw the mangled and burnt body of my husband. It was clear that he had been beaten with sharp objects in his face, head, chest and all over the body,” said Mntambo.

The counselling she and her two children – five and 14 – got from government social workers lasted only three sessions, which the grief-stricken family did not feel was enough.

Mntambo said she heard what had transpired during the attack from her husband’s nephew and friend – both of whom were shot and badly injured but had managed to escape – after they had returned home from Addington Hospital in Durban, where they had spent weeks recovering.

“My husband’s Toyota Quantum was less than three months old when the tragedy happened. But it was never discovered,” said Mntambo. “Its tracker was taken out and thrown away and it disappeared. I had to take over payment of the vehicle despite it not being with me.”

She added that her husband’s insurance company recently concluded the vehicle was not anywhere near the looting hotspot and informed her she would only have to pay an excess of R23,000.

Threat of being burnt alive

Also still traumatised is Zithobile Matyobo (37), who is now the convenor of a local peace committee task team helping Phoenix victims and their families to seek assistance and justice.

She was close to tears when recalling how she narrowly survived an attack.

“I was aware of the blockages and tense situation in Phoenix, but I was forced to drive to the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital after my neighbour and friend had stitches opened after giving birth through a C-section operation a week earlier.

“When we entered Phoenix we were stopped from one barricade to another. At one of them, they poured petrol into my vehicle and said they were going to burn us inside. I pleaded with them to shoot us instead of burning us alive.

“By that time my friend, the patient, was crying in pain inside the vehicle. So others within the vigilante group pleaded with them to let us through.

“When we reached the hospital my friend was so weak, barely breathing. We telephoned the Phoenix police to escort us back home, with the crying baby of my friend. They had one police van in front of our vehicle and another at the back. But, still, the vigilantes were baying for our blood.

“When we arrived home we got a call that my friend had died. It was just a very sad double jeopardy,” Matyobo said.

She said the peace committee’s task of helping victims has been frustrated by a lack of empathy from government officials, including those in the justice system.

‘Because of our blackness’

Mxolisi Myeni, another task team convenor, who owns a house in Phoenix, testified at the Human Rights Commission hearing into the July violence and the Phoenix killings. “I remember vividly what was happening. Even us long-standing residents of Phoenix could not access our homes, simply because we were racially profiled because of our blackness.

“None of the victims were attacked in people’s homes or businesses. Most of the victims were attacked in impromptu roadblocks on public roads.

“Many of the victims had nothing to do with [the] looting; they just found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time,” recalled Myeni.

Thami Cele (35) was also a resident of Phoenix’s Brooklyn complex when the riots began. A year earlier he had bought a seven-seater Honda BRV, with which he made a living as an e-hailing driver, transporting workers and schoolchildren.

He said that on 12 July he had gone to Phoenix with his neighbours to buy groceries and on their way back they were stopped by a group of vigilantes. He believed he was one of the first victims in Phoenix.

“We had been living in Phoenix for years and I didn’t expect that, one day, I would be stopped and attacked,” said Cele.

“But when I passed one area I was stopped by a group of people who started attacking and stoning our vehicle. When I came out of the car to tell them that I stay in Phoenix, one of the men pulled out the key from the ignition.

“We were then attacked. The two other people in the vehicle managed to get out of the vehicle and escape into the nearby bush. I was attacked with sticks and stones. My arm was broken.

“I followed those who ran to the bushes and the attackers started shooting at us, but fortunately the bullets missed me.

“We called on our family members who called on the police who came out to rescue us from the bush,” said Cele. He and the two others who were in the vehicle had to get medical help from a clinic in Inanda.

“As we were escorted by the police, I saw my car was still burning into ashes. Also, we saw many black people, including security guards, were being attacked and beaten.”

Cele has since left Phoenix to rent a room in nearby Inanda, where he is broke and unemployed.

“It’s a pity the government was able to compensate businesses who were affected by the looting and burning. Us black people, who lost our vehicles and our livelihoods, are still suffering with no end in sight,” he said, adding that he and his partner are still paying off the vehicle that was torched in the violence.

Thulile Ngcobo (59) lost her family’s breadwinner when her son, Bhekinkosi (36), was killed and burnt in his vehicle in the neighbourhood.

Her son, a self-employed welder, had gone to the Phoenix industrial area with a helper to order parts to make a gate when they were attacked. “He was attacked in his vehicle and his body was charred beyond recognition. His helper, who managed to escape, was so injured physically and emotionally that he lost his mind. His family took him home to the Eastern Cape.

“What is even more painful is that we don’t see justice happening. We were told that the charges brought against those arrested for killing black people, including my son, had been dropped due to lack of evidence,” Ngcobo said.

Deep, deep pain among the victims

Bishop Paul Verryn of the Methodist Church, which is trying to help victims and their families with counselling and with seeking justice, said the government had let people down.

“I’ve been asked by one of the local pastors to help and work with the victims of the violence that happened in July in KZN last year. I think there is a deep, deep sense of pain among the victims, pain that has not been recognised by society at large,” said Verryn.

“The likelihood of the violence happening again is very high because there are many angry people out there. Also, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown so much that there are wealthy people who cannot even imagine how they are going to spend their wealth and poor people who go to bed on an empty stomach. That kind of a situation cannot sustain peace for long.”

Police Minister Bheki Cele’s spokesperson, Lirandzu Themba, referred all queries to the police in KwaZulu-Natal and the National Prosecuting Authority.


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