Close-Up | Phoenix massacre: Let’s talk about race

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Burnt out cars in Phoenix following violence that has engulfed the community on July 15, 2021 in Durban.
Burnt out cars in Phoenix following violence that has engulfed the community on July 15, 2021 in Durban.
Gallo Images/Darren Stewart


Some have said it is too little, too late. Others have said: at least we are finally talking about this; even after all the blood has been shed, even after families have been torn asunder, neighbours turned against each other, old friends turning into enemies.

It is the Phoenix racial imbroglio we are talking about. As Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal succumbed to six days of violence, during which shops were looted and buildings torched, Phoenix experienced a strange strain of violence that was very specific: African people dying at the hands of their Indian neighbours.

Between July 12 and 15, vigilante groups killed 36 people. Video footage of some of these attacks appeared on social media immediately after this, under the banner of “Phoenix massacre”.

But just as soon as it began, discussion of this specific manifestation of the violence immediately stopped. Those who tried to speak about it were accused of instigating retaliatory strikes by African people on Indian people.

Witness testimonies

Now, at last, we are able to focus on this shocking massacre. Last week, the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) started hearings into these murders.

READ: The Phoenix tinderbox

Witnesses from both sides of the racial divide gave testimony, a process that will continue over the next few days.

Witnesses from the African side of the divide testified to being shot at, assaulted and called racist names such as “monkeys” and “Zuma’s people”.

Indian witnesses confirmed to having taken part in roadblocks strategically set up in parts of the township to ensure that no lawbreakers entered Phoenix to loot and create mayhem.

But some African witnesses – such as Ntombikayise Lutuka who lives in Phoenix, which is predominantly populated by Indian people – claim the attacks were not a crime-prevention measure.

Indian people, she testified, simply did not want to see African people that day. They attacked them on sight, even those who were known to them as neighbours.

According to different witnesses, police refused to intervene, even after they had been told that criminal acts were being committed not far away from the police station itself.

The insinuation is that the police were complicit in the bloodshed.

READ: Mondli Makhanya | Another inferno in the making

Thulani Mseleku from Phoenix told of his escape on the night of July 12.

On his way home from work, he said he was stopped by a group of armed men who asked him where he was coming from. One of the men snatched his sunglasses, keys, cellphone and a R200 note from inside his car.

Somebody allegedly threw a brick through the windscreen, hitting him in the face. He managed to escape, and went to the police station.

There were about 15 police officers inside, but he was asked to stay outside.

Finally, two African policemen arrived at the station and were asked to help him. He was taken to the local clinic, which he claims was like an upturned beehive, with some injured people lying on the floor, nursing different kinds of injuries.

He was then transferred to Mount Edgecombe Hospital where he stayed for week. His car was a write-off, thanks to the bricks and other missiles thrown at it while he was being attacked. The left side of his face is seriously scarred.

With only 14 months before official retirement, he cannot work any more because of his injuries. He can hardly walk. His life is over, he told the hearings.

READ: Where is the true South African?

Police Minister Bheki Cele told the nation on August 3 that 22 suspects had been arrested and charged with either murder, attempted murder, damage to property or defeating the ends of justice.

The police seized 152 firearms from four private security companies and 112 illegal firearms during the police raid in Phoenix.

What happened in Phoenix and other areas where murders with deep racial undertones were committed should be condemned, and the culprits appropriately punished.

Phoenix violence has a history

But it is good that the hearings are taking place. For far too long we have refused to acknowledge the deep tensions between African and Indian people in KwaZulu-Natal.

What happened in Phoenix was neither an isolated incident nor a spontaneous mishap. It has a history.

On January 13 1949 an Indian storekeeper in central Durban assaulted an African youth. African witnesses retaliated by launching attacks on Indians indiscriminately.

In six days, which came to be known as the Durban Riots, the violence spread as far afield as Pietermaritzburg. When the attacks finally stopped, a total of 142 people had died in the violence. Among them were 87 African and 50 Indian people.

Over the next years and decades, there was peaceful coexistence between the two communities in and around Durban. African workers generally continued to provide labour for Indian businesses.

But in 1985, there was an explosion of violence between Indian people and African people in Inanda, north of Durban. Three Indian men were killed, and scores of Indian-owned businesses and houses were torched.

READ: Close-Up | Unrepentant bigots take advantage of our tolerance

Again, peace returned. But the Indian residents who had fled Inanda in 1985 never went back.

With the repeal of Group Areas Act and other apartheid laws that segregated residential areas and schools, some African people started moving into neighbourhoods previously reserved for Indian people.

Their children started attending schools in Indian areas. Friendships were formed. In some instances, interracial romantic relationships blossomed into marriages.

Then, in 2021, Phoenix happened. It is surreal when you consider the fact that there was a 36-year gap between 1949 and 1985, and then another gap of 36 years again between 1985 and 2021.

History tells us that when African people attacked Indian people in 1949, some white people cheered. They couldn’t take what they considered Indian “arrogance”.

READ: Divide & rule: Old tricks from new-age racists

Indian people were considered arrogant for the simple reason that they tried to compete against white people in the business world.

Now, in 2021 as Indian people killed African people, white people (in the form of the DA) cheered. Remember those DA posters that said people from Phoenix were heroes, just days after the horrendous murders? Again, another pattern.

More serious conversations on race needed

Clearly, race has a lot to do with what happened in Phoenix – even though many would like to pretend otherwise.

READ: DA apologises for controversial posters while ANC heads to the SAHRC

It was against this background that filmmaker Anant Singh warned that there needs to be a serious conversation in South Africa, more especially in Durban and the surrounding areas over these racial tensions.

Speaking during the launch of his book, In Black and White, at the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg last week, Singh hinted at some of the possible causes of distrust between African people and Indian people in the greater Durban area.

READ: Close-Up | Anant Singh: A colourful and rewarding journey

He said some Indian employers mistreated and exploited their employees, a reality that gave rise to resentment.

“We need to speak openly about these things if we are to find solutions,” he said.

I am 100% behind Singh. We can’t pretend everything is rosy. I am glad that the SAHRC has opened this forum where people can talk openly.

Unlike a court of law, which makes people fear that they might incriminate themselves, this forum is ideal for real truth telling.

I sincerely hope it is the beginning of a long and meaningful conversation on what is clearly a problem that might continue to haunt us in the next few years, if not addressed with the sincerity it deserves.

I would like to see universities and think tanks across the board taking this conversation to higher levels, and making it as inclusive as possible.

We need to talk.

The SAHRC will be accepting written submissions from parties affected by the July riots until December 3. Submissions can be emailed to


Fred Khumalo 

Deputy News Editor: Opinion and Analysis

+27 11 713 9001
69 Kingsway Rd, Auckland Park
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