Tensions surge in Durban CBD

Raymond Zowa has the vacant stare of someone who cannot bear to see the present any more.

Late last Sunday night he watched his brother Victor, a Zimbabwean national, plunge to his death from the sixth floor of a building in Durban’s Albert Park area after being attacked by a mob allegedly armed with sjamboks and pangas.

Minutes earlier Zowa, together with fellow Zimbabwean Melvin Phiri, had scampered down pipes outside the building and hopped on to the roof of another to escape the mob.

“I saw a guy in a grey hood with a knife trying to push Victor out the window.
I called for him to stop but he didn’t hear — so I turned away because I didn’t want to see Victor die,” says Phiri.

“I heard the mob outside on the street blowing vuvuzelas and shouting but didn’t think anything about it - the police are just around the corner. Then I saw them come in with pangas and stones and could hear them shouting for the amakwerekwere. Then people started screaming, they were breaking glass and hitting people — the blood we saw was too much,” said Everest Zuva, a Zimbabwean national living in the building.

The attack left Victor Zowa and Said Omari, a Tanzanian national, dead. A third man is in a critical condition in hospital, while two others were injured after allegedly being forced out of third floor windows. Another woman was robbed of money and identity documents while returning to the building.

The broken bodies mirror the apparent broken trust in Albert Park - an area in the central business district heavily populated by foreigners—as recriminations and accusations fly.

Foreign nationals say that had the police from the Broad Street police station—two doors away from the Venture Africa building where the attack took place—been more responsive, the deaths would have been prevented. According to an employee at Venture Africa the police were called twice during the attacks but to no avail.

The local ANC ward councillor, Vusi Khoza, has played down the perceived xenophobic nature of the attacks, calling it a criminal act by “opportunists” who had hijacked an anti-crime drive in the area.

Leaders among the foreign communities say Khoza is diverting attention from the xenophobia inherent in the community and the vigilant-ism of the local community policing forum (CPF).

According to a night-shift employee at Venture Africa—a hostel largely populated by foreigners referred there by Lawyers for Human Rights and the United Nations High Commission on Refugees—Khoza himself had led an armed group into the building the previous night.

Khoza dismisses the allegation, claiming he was followed there by the group while attempting to help a woman retrieve a stolen cellphone after she complained that the police were not helping her.

CPF chairperson Ngqulunga Gama says “CPF members together with members of the community” congregated outside the police station on Saturday night to ensure that criminals they had apprehended earlier were locked up. That night CCTV cameras in the area captured a group of people armed with pangas and sticks walking on nearby Maude Mfusi Street (formerly St George’s Street).

Baruti Amisi, chairperson of the KwaZulu-Natal Refugees Council said that at two meetings held on Tuesday this week Khoza had “prevented foreigners from speaking about what they had experienced on that night”.

Pointing out that “no locals from the building were harmed in the attacks”, while there were “no foreigners in the group searching for criminals”, Amisi said that this denialism would not help “in getting to the cause of the attacks”.

ANC provincial secretary Senzo Mchunu said the party “condemned the brutal attack”. Mchunu also questioned why police had not monitored the situation considering the CCTV footage.

Tensions, meanwhile, are rising in the Albert Park area, with many foreigners who spoke to the Mail & Guardian saying that they were now considering defending themselves.

“Our brothers are dying and we don’t trust the police to defend us or to get us justice. We can’t keep taking this lying down, we will fight back now,” said a Zimbabwean who chose to remain anonymous.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket. Read more from Niren Tolsi

Client Media Releases