In a sudden bout of racial killings, a South African suburb sees a dark history repeating itself
PHOENIX, South Africa — Thirty-six years separated the infamous race riots of 1949 and 1985 in this area, when people of African and South Asian descent — pitted against one another at the bottom rungs of the apartheid system — killed each other in a bubbling over of resentment.
Last month, another 36 years after the last riots, Phoenix and surrounding towns ignited once again.
Amid a week-long bout of looting, arson and clashes that saw at least 342 killed across two South African provinces, 36 were killed in this patchwork of poor Black townships and more developed “Indian” suburbs that had been coexisting peacefully, though unequally. Most of the dead were Black this time, and most of the suspected killers were Indian, the country’s police chief said this week.
Interviews with nearly two dozen people — including victims, their family members, community leaders, politicians, business owners and others — were laced with disbelief. Decades of work had been put into building a peaceful coexistence. All wondered the same thing: How had it unraveled so suddenly?
The answer, most thought, was rooted in South Africa’s failure to truly heal the divides of apartheid. The country may have christened itself the Rainbow Nation, but high walls of income and opportunity still divide each of its stripes.
The wave of looting that swept across the metropolitan areas of Johannesburg and Durban, two of South Africa’s biggest cities, had already been raging for days when Thuto Shwuaka, 18, and friends decided to gather for a pickup soccer game on an empty field in Phoenix, whose population of around 200,000 is mostly descended from South Asians brought to South Africa more than 100 years ago by the British colonial government as farm and railroad laborers.
The television news had been broadcasting live shots of mostly Black crowds streaming out of department stores and warehouses with whatever they could grab. Interspersed with such footage were interviews with mostly White and Indian men in relatively affluent neighborhoods who said they had armed themselves in case the looters came for their homes. Shwuaka and his friends were stopped by one of these groups, he said.
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“We came across a group of Indian men who told us that we could not pass there and turned us away,” he recalled on a recent day at home. “Then they accused us of being part of the group of people who had been looting and started beating us.”
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Nearly a month after the violence, South Africa’s police have come forward with a clearer picture of what transpired.
On July 12, days before President Cyril Ramaphosa ordered the deployment of thousands of reserve soldiers to the area, Phoenix residents began setting up checkpoints, according to Bheki Cele, the country’s top police official.
“Problems started when people at checkpoints turned to vigilantism and started racially profiling people, preventing them entry into the suburb,” Cele said at a news conference Tuesday, adding that the targets were “mainly African people.” Cele did not explain why so few police were available to intervene, leaving an opening for vigilantism.
Tensions quickly rose, and people on both sides brought weapons to the checkpoints. Shots were fired, people spread out and recriminations took place across Phoenix and adjacent settlements. People were “butchered with bush knives,” Cele said. “Vehicles were set alight.”
“We are concerned about the potential outbreak of racial tension going forward,” Sihle Zikalala, the premier of KwaZulu-Natal, the province where Phoenix is located, said at the same news conference. He referred to the events of July 12 as a “massacre.”
All in all, 30 were shot dead. Two were burned to death. One was stabbed and one run over with a truck. Two more died of injuries from assaults. All but three of the dead were Black.
The police have deployed 31 special detectives to the area in the weeks since and have opened 52 cases of attempted murder, 25 cases of assault and other cases against a smattering of people accused of spreading inflammatory misinformation online. They have seized 152 firearms from “private security companies” and another 112 from private citizens.
The debate over private gun possession in South Africa roughly mirrors that in the United States.
“Discussions about guns are highly emotional, and pro-gun groups are mostly conservative and White and similar to the National Rifle Association in the U.S.,” said Guy Lamb, an expert on urban crime and policing at the University of Stellenbosch. “Whereas most of the gun violence that takes place in South Africa is in poor, Black townships.”
South Africa’s police force has recently pushed for a ban on licensing firearms for private citizens but has faced enormous pushback from gun owners. South Africa already requires owners to be over 21, and to undergo background checks and competency tests.
“There was clearly a failure in policing,” Lamb said of what happened in Phoenix. “In those instances, people may feel justified to use vigilantism.”
‘No bail, no bail’
Court proceedings are underway against dozens of alleged perpetrators of the violence in Phoenix. Outside a courtroom last week, police and soldiers separated large crowds of protesters. “No bail, no bail” was the loudest chant.
“We want to make sure that people who are murderers do not get bail,” said Vukani Ndlovu, provincial treasurer for 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 apartheid to the Black majority.
Supporters of the ruling African National Congress, which promotes a more conciliatory racial tone, emphasized that the killings should not drive a wedge between communities that had come to rely on each other for jobs and services.
“We must not allow the incidents of the past weeks to divide us,” said Kwazi Mshengu, a provincial ANC official, standing on the sidelines of the protest. “We are one people. We need to build a nonracial, united South Africa.”
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The ANC has struggled to achieve that goal since apartheid ended in 1994. The party inherited a country that had been strictly divided by race in almost all walks of life by the apartheid government. All towns were racially segregated by the Group Areas Act, which imposed apartheid’s hierarchical system of privileges and services onto South Africa’s geography.
Phoenix’s Indian community is not wealthy by South African standards, but it is glaringly better off than the impoverished Black communities nearby that suffer from lack of water and electricity — public services that the ANC government has yet to reliably provide after nearly three decades in power.
While the two communities rely on each other, racism and resentment stretch back at least 120 years to when a young Mahatma Gandhi lived in Phoenix, where he published a newspaper and was a community leader. Despite his saintly reputation elsewhere, South African scholars have detailed his racist views toward Africans, and he is remembered by the Black community in South Africa as an apologist for the supremacist notions that undergirded what would eventually become the apartheid system. So-called Indian South Africans make up about 2.5 percent of the national population.
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The White community, which makes up close to 10 percent of the population, was relatively untouched by July’s violence, an indicator of how much more separate they remain from the rest of South Africans than the Indian community.
“What has happened here again is a blight on humanity and it shows the failure of the democratic project,” said Amyna Fakhude, an activist working on interracial and interfaith dialogue in Phoenix. “Due to the negligence that has happened [since apartheid ended], we actually shot ourselves in the foot as a society by not working toward equality.”
That inequality is most keenly felt in Black townships like KwaMashu, just south of Phoenix.
When the looting began to spread through KwaZulu-Natal, some members of the community there saw an opportunity to take basic goods like refrigerators and couches that are too expensive to normally afford. But most stayed at home out of fear that Blacks would collectively be seen as looters and rounded up or worse.
“We don’t own anything. We are consumers and spectators in our own economy,” said Mlamuli Shangase, president of the local chapter of the Black Business Federation, a national organization. “What happened is not about ‘Indians and Africans,’ it is about criminals who took law into their hands.”
‘Tell us: Why did they kill us?’
As the violence surged on July 12, Fabian Moodley, who grew up as the protective eldest son of a young single mother in a rough neighborhood, rushed to one of the checkpoints that had sprung up. He was shot dead there under disputed circumstances.
Looking back on that day, his mother, Tashleen, feels not just sadness but anger at the absence of the police. Faybian, 18, had always acted older than his age, but she wished he’d been more like a child that day.
“It wasn’t his place to assist in a roadblock, we have law enforcement, we have police. If our president could deploy the army for covid,” she said, before trailing off. “My child is not a soldier, he shouldn’t have been there.”
On the way to meeting committee members in the township of Bhambayi, a man pointed a gun at a driver of Indian descent hired by The Washington Post.
In a meeting arranged later, Blessing Nyuswa, one of the committee’s conveners, said that even though many in Bhambayi relied on Phoenix for jobs, schools and clinics, they were hesitant to go back, even though it might worsen their economic status.
“The people in Bhambayi say to me, ‘Before you tell us about peace, Blessing, tell us: Why did they kill us?” she said.
The answer she gives them is an indictment of South Africa’s quest for racial justice in the decades since apartheid was ended.
“We didn’t get freedom,” she said. “We only got democracy.”