/ 16 November 2021

Racial tension and distrust evident in Human Rights Commission hearings on July riots

Safrica Unrest Politics Economy Vigilantes
Armed community members gather around a fire to keep warm at a road block set up in Phoenix Township, North Durban, on July 15, 2021 to prevent looters from reaching the community. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP)

By tea time on day two of the public hearings on the deadly violence that swept Phoenix and other parts of the country in July, questioning turned to racial prejudice, by way of semantics.

Members of the South African Human Rights Commission asked Phoenix activist Sham Maharaj why he resisted terming the killing of the 36 mainly African victims of the violence that swept the area a massacre.

“That is something that the politicians and the media have sought to put out. I don’t think that it has been a massacre. It has been killings, that is true, people have died,” came the reply.

Evidence leader Smanga Sethene asked what his understanding of a massacre was, and Maharaj replied that in his view, the murder of mineworkers at Marikana fell under the definition of the word.

“Here the police can’t say where people found in Phoenix were killed, number one, were killed in one incident, in one day, at one time. There is no clarity from anybody.”

Sethene continued: “Mr Maharaja, would you agree that there was a deliberate and brutal killing of people of a specific race and colour?”

The witness conceded that this was correct.

“And in your view that was not a massacre?”

Maharaj insisted: “No, those were killings.”

Sethene replied that his testimony seemed permeated by concern about the perception people may form of Phoenix, adding: “And what is of concern to me is your lack of concern for the families who have lost their loved ones, indiscriminately killed during the unrest in Phoenix, in particular.” 

He reminded Maharaj that his testimony was meant to shed light on what had happened in Phoenix, but said instead he repeatedly attempted to cast it as merely a part of the wider unrest that shook KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng for more than a week in mid-July.

According to police figures, the death toll reached 359, with the vast majority of victims killed in KwaZulu-Natal. Hundreds of malls, banks and post offices were vandalised in the eight-day wave of violence estimated to have caused R50-billion in damages.

Maharaj testified that prior to the unrest, triggered by protest against Jacob Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court, there was peace in Phoenix, which was founded in 1976 northwest of Durban and has a population of roughly 70% Indian and 30% African residents.

“There has been nothing. I have been an activist since 1997 and we have built a very cordial relationship. There has been absolutely no tension before that time at all. People worked together, people ate together, people played soccer together,” he said.

“In one week in July, this relationship got destroyed, the trust got broken.”

Asked what prompted the violence of July 12 in Phoenix in particular, Maharaj said he believed the violence in the area was perpetrated by “these people who were manning the roadblocks” but he could not say why “people were shooting wildly”.

Pressed further, he said seemingly those living in the area committed the violence. “They are from Phoenix, yes.”

Maharaj noted that the police were overwhelmed, in particular because the area has only one police station for a population of almost 700,000 people.

He recalled that hundreds of informal neighbourhood watch groups sprang up overnight as people tried to protect their homes and families, and said he too formed part of a group of 50 people who, unarmed, stood guard over their corner of the neighbourhood.

But Maharaj ventured that the events of July made plain how politics can put a match to tensions regarding inequalities in society, and that if the culprits were not brought to book and the underlying social problems not resolved, the country risked a repeat at any moment.

“We have to look at this a bit more widely than Phoenix. What was very clear, and we don’t want to get into the politics of the whole thing, [is that], the attempted insurrection that started was the main cause of the violence and the looting throughout KZN and Gauteng.”

It may have resulted in the death of 36 people in Phoenix, he said, but it was worth remembering that, nationwide, 10 times as many died.

“It is a result of the unequal system we have in this country and until that changes we have to brace ourselves for more drama. 

“There has to be justice in this country, justice between poor people and people who are super rich … there were people who saw the opportunity to take food because they were poor. I’m not condoning what they have done.”

On Monday, the first day of the hearings that will run until December 3, the first witness was Zama Nguse, whose teenage cousin died in the violence in Pietermaritzburg’s Khan Road Corner informal settlement, which borders two suburbs with a population of mostly Indian South Africans. 

She described how, after businesses, including an Indian-owned liquor store, were ransacked, people from private security companies raided homes looking for the culprits and loot. 

Later, amid the mayhem, she said “Indians” descended on the area and started shooting at people. She told the commission she was certain that she saw Nicholas Moodley, who was arrested and faces charges including murder and arson, shoot another woman in the settlement. This apparently happened as businessmen also went on the rampage in the area as they looked for those who had looted their stores, and allegedly torched homes.

She knew and recognised Moodley, she said, because her boyfriend had been employed by him at one stage.

Thobani Nguse, a family member and fellow resident of Khan Road Corner settlement, said he was shot when the violence spread through the settlement. He testified that, along with other residents, he had stood up to looters and seized stolen liquor from them, with the hope of later returning it to the owners of ransacked stores.

He said he did not know who shot at him, leaving wounds he tended to himself because it was impossible to get medical treatment amid the chaos.

“I don’t know who shot at me because at that stage there was smoke. I think the person who shot at me would have been from behind.

“The shooting started at 8.30 am … I was at a passage quite close to my house. I was shot in the right shoulder. It is something that I was shot with and it is still in my body.”

Asked by advocate Andre Gaum if he could identify the looters, Nguse said: “I do not know them. It was the first time I saw them.”

He described seeing people throw a petrol bomb at a woman, and was adamant that he saw Indians among the attackers.

“It was a game to them,” he said of the attackers, adding that the residents, himself included, retaliated, uselessly, by hurling rocks at the armed gunmen.

“What angered me the most was that they said they shoot guys because we are criminals … I felt I needed to fight back and I felt I needed to retaliate and the only thing you would have were rocks and stones and the other person had firearms but it was just fight or die basically

“I picked up stones and threw them back. That is the only thing that I did. My pelting did not really help … I could see it was going nowhere.”