Armed private security guards and residents formed neighbourhood watch groups and barricaded roads in large parts of Phoenix, north of Durban, during the week of riots, violence and looting in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng.
Some of these groups allegedly shot innocent people, burning cars and preventing Africans from accessing the area, in what they said was their right to protect their homes and businesses. It is reported that 16 people were killed in Phoenix.
The South African Social Security Agency (Sassa) had invited Nombuso Majola and about 10 other affected families to the community hall in the Amaoti shack settlement to give them food relief vouchers.
Majola shouted from across the room. Her rage gripped her. “How can they say they were protecting their community when they were gunning down unarmed children?”
It had been six days since Majola found her son’s body in a mortuary in Phoenix.
“Our councillor called us and asked us to bring with us the death certificates for our killed family members. Maybe they want to help us,” said another woman. After a while the same voice spoke again, but more distant: “Is it even normal to shoot at innocent people like they did?”
The families in the room were among those of the more than 22 people killed by vigilante groups in Phoenix and neighbouring Inanda and Verulam. Eventually, the engagement with the Sassa representative ended. The families were told they could fetch their food parcels the next day.
“We’ve been here since early morning. We were called in, as members who lost relatives. They’re giving us food vouchers, an initiative from our ward councillor. In his efforts, it’s the best he could do. We can’t say no to the food, but we need more than food vouchers. We want justice. We can’t be silenced with food parcels and vouchers.”
Five days of not knowing
Majola is from Zwelisha, a shack settlement north of Durban that was established about 40 years ago. It is overcrowded and life is precarious owing to poverty.
She wants justice for her son, Mondli Majola, 19, who was killed in Phoenix on Monday 12 July. She swallowed her frustration as she recalled her last moments with her son, whose body she eventually found at the morgue with three gunshot wounds in his back.
Mondli had left their home in Zwelisha at around 1pm to accompany his friend to Phoenix to buy a box of cigarettes for his shop. “Before he left, he came over to ask me what I wanted him to cook. I told him to make curry and I would cook mielie meal later.”
Majola began searching for her son that night, when he did not come home. She found his body only on Friday.
“My partner, sister and I rushed for the police station, only to find it closed … We had no one to help us. We decided to go to Phoenix [where Mondli was last seen], where we were told to turn away by a group of Indians who had blocked the road.
“We tried the following day and were still turned away. Some people told us there were bodies also involved in the killings in Phoenix, which were kept in a mortuary in Emtshebheni, in Inanda. We went there with a photo of Mondli and what he was wearing that day. We didn’t find him.
“They closed the roads in Phoenix, demonstrating that they own the streets. We have been living next to them, working for them and taking our children to their schools. We trusted them. But the way things unfolded, it seems Indians in Phoenix couldn’t wait to kill Black people.”
Mondli was in matric at Woodview Secondary School in Phoenix. “The post-mortem says he died on the scene,” said Majola.
‘An example out of us’
Majola retraced her son’s steps to the house of friends and neighbours Mxolisi Phuthuzo, 19, and Zanoxolo Nyakambi, 24. They confirmed that Mondli had been with them when an armed mob allegedly attacked them in Mandela Park, Phoenix, on their way to Cornubia Mall.
“There were about five of us,” said Phuthuzo. “We had met up on the way and jokingly convinced each other to meet more of our friends who had called us. They had looted some food in Cornubia Mall and needed help with some of it. We didn’t think too much of the consequences. We didn’t even know what we were doing. On our way, approaching the road leading into Phoenix, a strange car rushed towards us and started shooting. We ran and scattered around, using people’s houses as shields,” he said.
“The white Avanza was enough for me to call it quits and go home. If they told us to go home, we would have listened. The Avanza then started shooting, swearing at us, shooting, and I quickly realised that they were not going to let us go back home. They wanted to make an example out of us.
“They looked at us like we were wild animals out to get them. But what threat did we pose? We had no weapons, just our phones and some money. They took all of that, we were walking barefoot. They kept shoving both Mondli and I. We tried to run, tried to hide in people’s homes, but they found us and took us back to the middle of the road in Mandela Park. One group was armed with just knives and the other carried just guns.
“While we tried to hide behind a house, two Indian men came and grabbed us. One Indian took me by my shirt and shoved me behind a car and hit me with a steel rod in my head. I went down and then he told me to sit up. Then the stabbing began. The other Indian took Mondli and after I took a hit on the back of my head, I never saw what they did to him. I just heard gunshots while they were beating and stabbing me.
Phuthuzo was stabbed three times in the back and ribs.
“Honestly, I only felt the true pain of the stab when one guy took the knife out. They saw I was hopeless and could not move and left me alone. That’s when I started crawling my way to a safe road and regained the strength to walk back home. When I came back from the clinic, I was then able to tell my family and Mondli’s mother what had happened,” said Phuthuzo.
‘No urgency to arrest’
“It’s like a dark cloud is hanging over the house … They took my only son in the most unforgiving way,” said Majola.
“I’m trying to heal but how do I do that, knowing that nothing is being done? There seems to be no urgency to arrest the people who killed our children like dogs.
“I am mourning the death of my son, but I am also raging with anger. I want the people who killed my son and the dozens more victims who were attacked and killed clearly because they are Black.
“My son posed no danger or threat to anyone … He was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time, just a boy walking with his friends. If the Indian residents didn’t want them there because they feared their shops and homes would be looted, then why not chase them away? Why not warn them? Why did they kill them?
“They keep saying they were protecting themselves, but from who? Black people have been gunned down, burnt and dumped like worthless animals. That is not protecting yourself, that is murder.
“How do we claim justice when the deaths of our families fall on deaf ears? When we needed the police, they never showed up. The police station was closed.”
Majola buried her son in Flagstaff, Eastern Cape, on Sunday 25 July. “I had to bury my son using money I borrowed from loan sharks. Nobody pitched in to help. In the end I was all alone, while the people who killed my son continue to live comfortably in the homes they helped protect against our unarmed Black children, men and even women. I am even more outraged,” she said.
‘We were in panic’
Daryl Naidoo, 28, a resident of Unit 5 in Phoenix, said residents with a “duty” to protect their neighbourhoods from looters organised the groups.
His father, Ganesh Naidoo, 61, was shot and killed on the night of Monday 12 July at a roadblock with a neighbourhood watch group they had mobilised in Spine Road, Phoenix.
“We don’t have much here. All that we have, we have worked too hard for. We realised that we could not afford to lose it all. We had to prevent the looting from threatening our livelihoods, and mostly our homes. We had heard messages on social media, we were in panic, and so we tried to protect what was ours.”
Naidoo said the groups were armed and admitted that some of the organised neighbourhood watch groups’ behaviour spiralled out of control, but insisted that searches at their roadblocks were not based on racial profiling.
“A lot of people from the neighbourhood took part in the community watch groups, all ages, young and old. Some police who live around the area, too. Things got out of hand and that’s what made it seem racial. But even though my dad died tragically, I’m not blaming it on race.”
Naidoo said an incident in Clayfield, Phoenix, fuelled residents’ outrage. “Around 9am on the morning of Monday 12 July, we heard that about five Black men had tried to break into the petrol station. They were met by about 200 Indians who had camped there, guarding the area. The group used whatever weapons they had and chased them away. That’s when we decided that we must also protect our homes and shops at night.”
Residents of Unit 5 and Unit 6 then blocked the road leading to these areas, to “protect their homes”.
“At about 8pm, we saw a van heading towards us, but it stopped a bit further away. My dad, my friend and his friend went up to the car to tell them to turn away. We could see there were about four men in the car.
“They never made it to the car, they were shot a few metres away. The four men ran towards a nearby sports field and abandoned the van. I ran towards them and found my father bleeding. A local security car rushed to take all three to the hospital. My father must have died on the way to the hospital because the security van came back with just him inside the car, and they asked me to take his body and wait for the police. We stayed with his body on the sidewalk until midnight, until the police arrived to take the case,” said Naidoo.
The struggle gets harder
Zwelisha and Amaoti residents gathered in the Amaoti community hall on Friday 23 July to pay tribute to those who died. Speakers called for peace and justice.
Lungisani Mtebele from Zwelisha 1 said the community is angry. “Families who lost their loved ones from this violence were already struggling. They can barely afford to be alive. The struggle is now harder because some people have lost loved ones who were supporting their families, or at least trying.
“We have lost our sisters and brothers, and food prices are higher and we have no jobs. How is that for justice? Whoever is behind these riots created a dangerous scene in which only poor people suffer. The racial undertones that were always swept under the carpet have been revealed. Black people being killed for the colour of their skin is racism, no matter how you look at it,” said Mtebele.
Philisiwe Ngcobo buried her brother, Bhekinkosi Ngcobo, 39, on Saturday 24 July. After a tireless search of hospitals and mortuaries, she found his body at the Phoenix mortuary. “He left home around 6pm,” said Ngcobo, to buy petrol in Palm View, Phoenix. “He left with two other neighbours. He had a sense of the chaos that was happening from the looting. He didn’t pay attention to it. His main worry was getting petrol for his car.”
Ngcobo said her brother was beaten to death and his car torched.
The neighbours who had gone with him hid in a bush. But Bhekinkosi limped and the group who allegedly attacked them quickly caught him. The two said they saw him pleading for help.
“My brother died senselessly, and although I have found peace and forgiveness, I am not satisfied with the justice in these cases. Some people, out of desperation, went to loot, some desperate to protect themselves. The presence of police was nowhere to be found. Lawlessness prevailed and now we, on the other side of the hill, sink deeper in disparity,” said Ngcobo.
KwaZulu-Natal Premier Sihle Zikalala said on Monday 26 July that at least 251 people are reported to have died as a result of the unrest. “The SAPS are investigating 163 cases for murder and 87 inquests dockets have been opened and 20 arrests related to the cases of murder related to the unrest.”
South African Police Service national spokesperson Colonel Brenda Muridili confirmed on Wednesday 28 July that the police had arrested eight suspects to date.
“One suspect has already appeared in court and his case remanded to 16 August, while the other seven suspects were expected to appear before court on Monday 26 July. Some of these suspects are allegedly connected to more than one murder case while others will face charges relating to attempted murder, malicious damage to property and defeating the ends of justice.”
Chris Biyela, the convenor of the peace committee that Minister of Police Bheki Cele set up to investigate and quell violence in Phoenix and the surrounding areas, said it was “satisfied” with the progress of the investigations.
“Although we haven’t had the time to brief the communities on the recent updates, we have been publicly speaking on community as well as national radio stations. The investigating officers have been updating us on the progress of the case and we now know that there has been a member of the SAPS, a private security officer and a municipality employee who have also been arrested.”
Biyela said the committee, made up of residents from Bhambayi, Phoenix, Zwelisha and Amaoti, had a mandate from their communities to “push for justice and see all those responsible for the murders jailed. Communities are also demanding that homes in Phoenix be raided and find the guns that were involved.”