Long Read | Past and present push Phoenix over edge

Decades-old unresolved racial tensions fuelled anew by the killings in Phoenix in KwaZulu-Natal are threatening a fragile relationship between the township and its neighbours.

At the Dube Village Mall in Inanda, north of Durban, a group of pensioners, mostly women, sweeps up the charred remains of the devastation and destruction caused by three days and nights of rioting, chaos and gun battles. The mall may never recover from the damage it suffered during the rioting. Hundreds of scarce jobs are at risk.

Dube Village is named after John Langalibalele Dube, the prolific intellectual, founder of Ohlange High School in Inanda as well as the first isiZulu newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal, and the first president of the organisation that later became the ANC. 

It was one of the first places to be hit as riots exploded on Sunday night 11 July after President Cyril Ramaphosa, addressing South Africans on Covid-19 regulations, called the initial disturbances following Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment a result of “ethnic mobilisation”.

20 July 2021: Volunteers cleaning up the gutted Dube Village Mall in Inanda, north of Durban, queue at what remains of the petrol station to have lunch.

Sikhumukane Hlongwane, a security guard working the night shift at the mall that evening, says soon after the speech the quiet night air was split by angry voices. An armed crowd formed and moved towards the mall singing songs calling on authorities to “free Zuma”.

“They were walking very fast with hammers and bush knives. They started at the garage and started to throw and break things. People came out to see [from their houses] and started running behind them into the mall. They [the armed group] broke the roller door and started to take things. Then others joined in,” recalls Hlongwane.

The father of three children, who lives about 5km away in the township of KwaMashu, fled and hid behind the mall. He was terrified. 

The real criminals, he says, are those who ripped out the safes from shops and ATMs. They knew what they wanted and came with bags to collect the money. “Most of them were taking food and other things. You could see only two of them were busy with the safes,” he says. “It was so traumatising. We need some kind of counselling for what we saw. At night, when I close my eyes, I struggle to sleep. What if I died?” 

Until nothing remained

The looting continued for three days. When there was nothing left, the wiring, pipes and whatever could be stripped and sold for scrap were next. Then the mall burned. Nobody knows for certain whether the fire was a result of arson or because wiring had been exposed.

The Bridge City shopping centre, situated on the corner of Nogwaja Road and Bridge City Boulevard in Bester, wasn’t spared either, cutting many residents off from their nearest place to buy food. Most will now have to find unbudgeted taxi fare to buy supplies.

Before the construction of Dube Village Mall and later Bridge City, most residents of the nearby shack settlement of Bhambayi as well as impoverished sections of Inanda such as White City and parts of Amaoti had to shop for groceries in Phoenix. They would do so either at Mambha Cash & Carry or at the Phoenix Plaza. Those with more means would get their supplies in Umhlanga or downtown Durban. 

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Phoenix has always been entangled in different ways with Inanda, an African area under apartheid, and the Bhambayi, Zwelisha, Amaoti and Brookes Farm shack settlements. Well over a million people live in these places.

During the riots, Mambha Cash & Carry – which sits on the edge of Brookes Farm, White City and Phoenix – was defended with barricades made of crates filled with cement blocks. There are reports that about four people who tried to break into the store were killed by private security personnel. 

A barricade went up next to the sign that warns people travelling from Phoenix towards White City they are now entering a hijacking hotspot. This warning is not based on any crime statistics. The barricade blocked access to fuel and much-needed healthcare, with the road being the fastest point to access Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital for some residents in White City, Bhambayi and Amaoti. 

Spatial inequalities

Stark differences remain between what under apartheid were African and Indian areas. More than a quarter of a century after democracy, the largely African townships and shack settlements remain devoid of all kinds of development. Most good sporting infrastructure, health services, better housing and job opportunities are in Phoenix. Many schools around Inanda are no-fee institutions and most parents prefer the well-serviced schools in Phoenix.

For years, none of the largely African townships had bank branches and people had to travel to Phoenix to do their banking. Prior to the riots, the Capitec Bank branch at Dube Village Mall was the only one serving these townships. Bridge City eased some of the strain, offering more options with a number of different banks opening branches in the centre. 

This inequality has created resentment. Some Africans see Phoenix as getting preferential treatment from government and business, and some Indians see Africans as people coming into “their” communities and taking resources away from them. This dynamic is part of what fuels racial tensions.

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Activists in the area agree that inequality, poverty, the profound failure of local government to attend to the housing crisis and the complete lack of policing were key elements driving the breakdown in the social order as the riots escalated.

An independent ward councillor for Inanda, Thandanani Mabanga, explains: “The economic gap between the communities depicts a contrasting reality. A majority Black communities close to Phoenix either work there, seek work there, or take their children to the schools in Phoenix. 

“Indians are seen enjoying more privileges, causing resentment from Black people and classism from Indian communities. As a result, Indian communities have also become targets of crime. These existing tensions, which have been downplayed, made it easy for the whole situation to escalate into this horrific state.”

Mbanga says he and others are working on rebuilding and retaining peace and calm. But he warns, “We need to be seeing arrests. People have lost faith in the police.”

20 July: Residents listen as Thandanani Mabanga, an independent ward councillor for Inanda, speaks about the way forward after the violent unrest in the area.

Uneasy alliances

Poverty and mass unemployment, which hit young people everywhere the hardest, have huge social costs. The Covid-19 lockdowns and surging levels of crime have been felt most acutely in the shack settlements, but those in the surrounding townships have not been spared.

State abandonment is painfully evident in these settlements. Residents live in the stench of uncollected rubbish with no formal access to water or electricity. In Bhambayi, there seems to have been some long-forgotten effort to develop the area in the form of names given to untarred, makeshift roads. Nestled among the rows of shacks where some children play are tuck shops with poorly scrawled menus on their corrugated iron facades selling pap, chicken curry and, often, biryani.

Some of the people living in the shack settlements work as domestic helpers, shop assistants and grass cutters in Phoenix. Some report good relationships with their employers. Others have not always been treated with kindness and suffered exploitation and disrespect.

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Abongile Ndziba, 28, moved to Bhambayi from Port St Johns, a small town set on a particularly beautiful stretch of the Wild Coast, 10 years ago. He worked piece jobs for three years before finding full-time employment with a private security company in Phoenix. When he resigned for a better-paying job in Pinetown, his employer refused to pay him what he was owed. In a gentle voice and with a wide smile, he says he was forced to threaten him. “What else could I do?” he asks.

Prior to the riots, residents lived in an unstable blend of racial tensions and harmony. The fireworks that burst into light on Diwali, the sound of the azan (call to prayer) and the rhythmic trance-inducing notes of izimbomu (ceremonial horn) used in the Shembe church were enjoyed, or at least tolerated, by all in an easy-going atmosphere.

But in the aftermath of the riots, the flow of everyday life has been interrupted. Fikile Mhlongo, who lives elsewhere but came to survey the ruins of the Dube Village Mall, says she now has to go to the Phoenix Plaza to shop. Some Africans are afraid to shop there in the aftermath of the violence, but Mhlongo, who was just there, does not feel this way. “I was fine, nobody did anything to me,” she says. 

About the overall situation in Phoenix, she says with a dismissive wave of her hand, “You get good and bad Indians. I think it was just criminality. I have Indian friends who share their religions and food, and others who don’t stand with us and kill. It’s complicated.” 

When histories collide

The land on which the original Phoenix Settlement was built was purchased by Mohandas Gandhi in 1904. The apartheid state established Phoenix as a working-class township in 1976, reserving it for people of South Asian descent, most of whom are descended from indentured workers. It is now a diverse place, but always was and still is predominantly Indian.

The area carries two histories of racial trauma. The first is that of the racism that runs from colonialism and indentured labour through apartheid. The second is the ethnic and racial violence of August 1985 during which Mpondo and Indian people were forced out of Inanda. Most of the more than 1 500 Indian families that had to flee ended up in Caneside and Foresthaven in Phoenix.

Like other working-class townships in Durban, Phoenix suffers from widespread youth unemployment and social problems such as domestic violence and alcoholism. It has been hit hard by the heroin epidemic that has rushed through the city, and the gangsters who run their turf with the support of the police are known to be extremely dangerous. As in other townships, there is a general but not uniform code of silence on these matters.

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Phoenix is divided into sections known as units, each with its own set of political and religious loyalties, drug dealers and varying levels of poverty and unemployment. It is also divided by class. Most homes are semi-detached council houses and flats, others are middle class. Some residents, like their neighbours in the shacks and former African townships, suffered greatly when the R350 Covid-19 relief grant was stopped. 

Current figures indicate that 337 lives were lost in the riots, of which 251 were in KwaZulu-Natal. Sihle Zikalala, the province’s premier, has said there were 38 vigilante killings of both Indians and Africans, with the majority being African. This happened in Phoenix, Inanda and Verulam. Current records show 16 deaths in Phoenix – two Indians and 14 Africans.

Much of the social media frenzy around the deaths in Phoenix has been uninformed, wildly exaggerated or deliberately faked. There has also been grossly inaccurate and reckless media coverage. The situation was inflamed before the killings through social media. Several Phoenix residents say as the riots started they were told that the angry mob was threatening to “steal our children, rape our wives and burn our homes”.  

Abandoned and afraid

When some local shops came under attack, barricades and checkpoints were set up across the township. Residents say the aim was to protect their homes, some of which were stoned, as well as their families, communities and businesses. There are claims, unverified at present, that people’s homes were invaded by rioters. Residents ask what else they could have done given that the police stood down during the crisis. 

There are accounts of people being killed at these checkpoints in drive-by shootings. Currently, only one person, Ganesh Naidoo, has been named as someone who is alleged to have been killed at a checkpoint.

It is clear that in some cases the checkpoints were used to turn away Africans. Apart from these instances of racial profiling, there are harrowing accounts of Africans coming under unprovoked attacks, including beatings, stabbings and murders, by Indians.

Without exception, everyone being interviewed says or readily agrees that the chaos was an opportunity for “trigger-happy” men – often described as gangsters or said to be officers in private security companies – to enforce vigilante justice.

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No one denies that there is racism in Phoenix. But many residents are bewildered that all the killings have been described as acts of racism for which, in their view, Indian residents as a whole are being blamed. They insist that a small number of vigilantes, “thugs” and private security officers are responsible for the murders. They all agree that the police must investigate the murders and arrests must be made. 

The Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority is investigating the allegations that private security personnel were responsible for some of the murders.

No one appears to have comprehensive details of who the 16 people who lost their lives are, or how they came to be counted among the dead. There’s no doubt, though, that there was an accumulation of horror.

Choreographer Delani Khumalo and his cousin Mlondi Khumalo, who are both alleged to have been shot and their bodies burnt, are among the 14 Africans who were killed in Phoenix. A number of residents say a notorious taxi boss is among four people who were burnt alive in a taxi outside a tavern in Unit 17, which is known as a key site for the area’s drug trade. There are fears that this killing will lead to a “bloodbath”.

Thriving crime and lawlessness 

All the residents interviewed in Phoenix, Inanda and Bhambayi collectively agree on one thing: if policing had been effective, they would not have been left to take matters into their own hands. It was this lack of security that paved the way for uncoordinated chaos, opportunistic vigilantism and murderous acts of criminality to thrive. Some say the police, who have been under-resourced for years, were overwhelmed and outnumbered. Several residents in Phoenix say police officers encouraged civilians to get their guns – licensed and unlicensed – and “shoot”.

Irvine Rajgopaul, 43, who has lived in the Woodview neighbourhood of Phoenix for most of his life, just like his parents and in-laws, is the director of the community policing forum. Over many years, the forum has raised money to install security cameras and street lights to combat surging crime mostly comprising home invasions, burglaries and drug-related offences.

He says when the rioting began on Sunday and spilled over into Monday and Tuesday, groups of people started marching into Phoenix. Among them, he says, lurked criminal elements who have been terrorising Phoenix and its neighbours for several years. But Rajgopaul decries the “disgraceful” behaviour of some who took the law into their own hands and that it has caused the entire community to be labelled as racists.

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On Monday 12 July, Siyabonga Gumede, a 37-year-old artist from KwaMashu, was driving with a friend in search of petrol. They were turned away at a checkpoint in Umhlanga, a wealthy ocean-side suburb to the north that is mostly made up of gated communities. The pair then drove across the main road into Phoenix. In a social media post, Gumede recounts the harrowing experience that followed. 

They were stopped by “a group of Indian men blocking the road with burning tyres carrying bush knives, golf sticks, bricks, shot guns”. The men let them through and they passed three more roadblocks without incident, but their car was stopped at the fourth and they were instructed to get out.

As Gumede alighted from the car, “one of them started beating me with the golf stick on the head, and they all started beating me with everything they had in their hands”. Protecting his head with hands, he fled towards a cliff. When his pursuers caught up with him, they told him that his car was burning. 

He ran and was chased, and while running saw a second group approaching. “There was no hope of surviving but I kept running forward,” Gumede writes. He was kicked in the back by someone from the first group and then attacked with a bush knife. When the second group reached him, they turned out not to be a second arm of a single attack. Instead, they opposed the first group, who called them “traitors”, and sought to stop the attack. While the two groups were arguing, Gumede made his way to safety and then home. He and his friend, who also made it home, have opened a case of assault at the KwaMashu police station.

Gumede also writes in his post: “This fight between black and Indian is not the racial issue, it is the bad influence [caused] by cowards who think that killing people is the way of solving social issues. If we can ask each and every Indian who contributed in beating and killing black people you will find that most of them were told to do so they don’t even know why they killed innocent, and harmless people who were driving in the main road.”

In an interview, Gumede says in his view people didn’t organise themselves into vigilante groups as an act of racism. They did so to protect their communities, but “there were racists amongst them”.

A balancing act

Away from the often blood-curdling noise on social media, ordinary life continues. Jordache Sookoo, a wiry young man, is gathered with his friends near a stormwater drain in Lenham, Unit 12, sharing a cigarette. “This is the last one,” he warns, handing another cigarette to a friend. It’s a valuable commodity when none of them is employed and they “do whatever” it takes to survive.

Sookoo, 23, moved to Phoenix to live with his aunt in order to be closer to his job at a call centre for a company in the United Kingdom. He supports his unemployed parents who live in Newlands West, next to Clermont in Durban. Sookoo was paid R25 an hour, but the economic fallout of Covid-19 saw it lowered to R15 and then he was retrenched. “Most of the people here between 18 to 23 are unemployed,” he says. “It’s hard, we’re living hand to mouth and we try to put food on the table. We all want jobs.”

20 July 2021: Unemployed Jordache Sookoo, far right, hangs out with his friends near his home in Phoenix.

A resident hands out polystyrene containers filled with chicken biryani to the young men gathered around the drain. She also gives one to her neighbour, Philisiwe Mhlongo, who works as a street cleaner under the expanded public works programme. The woman sharing the biryani refuses to give her name and briefly interrupts Mhlongo, pointing out which homes on the street belong to African residents in an effort to show that the neighbourhood is mixed. Mhlongo smiles and nods in return.

Mhlongo, 37, who has lived in Lenham for 21 years, explains that she and her mother, a nurse, are the sole breadwinners in their family. They support her father, her nephew Lungisi Mazibuko, 26, who hangs out with Sookoo, her two children and her sister, who has just graduated with a law degree and can’t find work.

“It was scary out here but I’m glad my nephew and the boys protected us,” she says, standing outside her front gate, comfortable in her robe. Across the narrow street, Mazibuko is chatting to his friends. Asked about work, he says he has been looking for a job for more than a year and it’s “tough” not being able to contribute to the household.

20 July 2021: Philisiwe Mhlongo has lived in Lenham, Phoenix, for 21 years. She works as a street cleaner under the expanded public works programme and is one of two breadwinners in her extended family.

During the riots, the boys joined an impromptu community watch after Goolams, a local shopping centre, was looted and gutted by fire. Its destruction angers and saddens Clinton Lawrence, a father of two who lives nearby. “It’s been here for more than 40 years,” he says. 

Like many others, Lawrence is angry that the complex story of Phoenix has been reduced to an issue of racism. There is a sense of intense hostility to the media on these street corners, with some organisations particularly coming in for vitriol. 

Lawrence repeats what so many residents say. “The police have failed us as a community. When Goolams was burning, they told us to get our guns to protect ourselves.” In his view, the rioting was a result of the government’s failure to create jobs and alleviate poverty. “Some of us have always worked alongside the communities in the shacks. We understand what they are going through. It took an entire generation of us to get out of poverty, so some of us do what we can to help where the government is failing.” 

In passing, he adds that he coaches a junior football league in Phoenix and Bhambayi. Goolams, which is adjacent to one of the football pitches the youth in the area train on, has started to rebuild. 

20 July 2021: Children play football in Phoenix with the shack settlement of Bhambayi in the background.

Signs of cooperation

There are some attempts at organisation. The Phoenix Tenants and Residents Association has African and Indian members and works closely with the largely – though not exclusively – African shack dwellers’ movement Abahlali baseMjondolo to oppose evictions and campaign for social housing. Mervin Govender, a leader in the association, says “people forget that Phoenix is a township. Criminals, gangsters and drug dealers also live there. Criminals live amongst us.” He also claims that the riots were used as cover by criminals as well as “military insurgents shooting at residents and invading homes”.

For Govender, like Lawrence and many other residents, what happened in Phoenix is a direct result of the government’s failure to effectively deal with impoverishment and unemployment and decades of failed policing. He also says the murders are being cynically exploited by politicians and their supporters to divide people.

This view is shared by Abahlali member Thapelo Mohapi, who works closely with Govender on social justice issues. “The question,” he says, “should be how did we get here? We have a very poor African, Indian and Coloured community and we should not allow the politicians and the elites to divide us.”

Mohapi, who grew up in Bhambayi, says when his family had to flee political violence in the early 1990s, Indian families in Phoenix gave them refuge. Mohapi is clear that racism was  present in some of the “acts of thuggery and gangsterism” that took place, but he stresses: “To say the [entire] Indian community is racist is unfortunate. Very prominent leaders in the province are encouraging this to achieve certain agendas. What we need now is to build unity and fight for equality.”

20 July 2021: Volunteers hand out meals in the aftermath of the violence in Phoenix.

This is what Navena Gunpath hopes will happen in Phoenix. She grew up in Unit 12, not far from Goolams. Her family’s modest semi-detached home is across the road from Brookes Farm, which has been there for more than 20 years, and she says the relationship between residents has always been harmonious. “We have always lived peacefully with the people in Brookes Farm and keep an eye on each other. The African uncle across the road who runs the tuck shop has been checking on us during the riots.”

When the looting began at Goolams, Gunpath says, the crowd walked back peacefully to their homes in Brookes Farm. Shaking her head, she adds: “The murders are disgusting. People lost loved ones and we can’t forget that.”

Gunpath’s lounge is packed with tin cans of food, long-life milk, non-perishable foodstuffs and fresh produce that she distributes to some elderly residents who lost their R350 grants and whose social grant payments have been disrupted by the riots.

Phoenix and its neighbours are awash with fear, loss, anger and bewilderment. There are families in the agonies of grief. Young people don’t have jobs, the whole area is flooded with heroin.

It could be said that Phoenix and its neighbours are an advanced warning of an approaching societal collapse resulting from social abandonment and the end of the ANC’s capacity to carry an emancipatory vision. But maybe, just maybe, in the boys sharing a cigarette, the activists organising together for a more just future and the independent councillor calling for peace and calm there could be the fragile elements that Phoenix and its neighbours can use to return to a shared life among the ashes.  

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