Community members hold pangas as they stand at a road block in Phoenix Township, North Durban, on July 15, 2021 to prevent looters from reaching the community. - Armed community members and vigilante groups have stepped in to tackle unrest in South Africa, taking matters into their own hands and sometimes stoking violence as security forces struggle to restore order.
Understaffed and heavily reliant on private security companies, the police was rapidly overwhelmed when riots and looting first flared last week in the southeastern province of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), sparked by the jailing of graft-accused former president Jacob Zuma. (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP) (Photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP via Getty Images)
Monday 12 July began as a typical day for Ntethelelo Mkhize. He and his friends enjoyed breakfast together before meeting more people in Eshowe, just more than an hour’s drive from his home village, KwaMashu, situated near Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal.
On their way back to KwaMashu, the group of nine adult men made a fatal decision to take a shortcut through Phoenix.
Testifying on day three of the public hearings into the violence witnessed by the country during the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, Mkhize recollected events that took place during the Phoenix massacre and what followed.
Mkhize — a lecturer at a technical vocational education and training (TVET) college, who was severely injured during the unrest — told the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) panel that, when the group returned from Eshowe after visiting friends, they entered Phoenix at about 3pm, which is when the “first phase of the victimisation” started.
They were stopped by a group of some 20 men, including children, who Mkhize pointed out as being “Indians”. He claims the group insulted them by calling them “monkeys” and “Zuma’s people”, before searching their vehicle. A confrontation ensued and, according to Mkhize, his vehicle was hit by an axe.
He told the panel that he saw people carrying bush knives, golf sticks, and firearms on the streets. The violent clashes resulted in the death of 36 people in Phoenix, many of whom were black people.
“People were lying down bleeding. Some were hacked or assaulted,” said Mkhize, describing the scenes as he remembered them.
Testifying briefly, Mkhize said he was assaulted and shot twice in his back and that, while lying on the floor, he was robbed — by one of the five accused he later identified at one of their court appearances.
Mkhize managed to be taken to a clinic, where he was then transported to a nearby hospital. However, it took the ambulance longer than usual to get to the hospital because of the clashes on the Phoenix streets.
Three of Mkhize’s friends died that afternoon on 12 July. He explained to the panel that he only heard of his friends’ passings after he woke up from a three-week coma in hospital. He also found out his vehicle had been torched.
Mkhize was hospitalised for two months.
Photos of the extent of his wounds were circulated to the panellists, who described them as being “gruesome”.
Mkhize told the SAHRC that the events of that day had both a financial and personal effect on his life. He lost friends; has had to pay ballooning medical expenses; and lost his car, which he nevertheless still has to continue paying off. In addition, he has had to contend with the financial burden of travelling to and from court proceedings in Verulam.
On a personal level, Mkhize testified that he could not sleep without taking medication; if he fails to do so, he suffers from flashbacks of the day in Phoenix, keeping him awake at night.
To conclude his testimony, evidence leader Smanga Sethene reminded Mkhize to put forward his view on the testimony of Phoenix activist Sham Maharaj on Tuesday.
“Mr Maharaj was here for his own intention and purpose,” said Mkhhize, who dismissed Maharaj, saying he is part of an “ubuntu organisation”.
“On that day, there was no humanity shown. The Indians were killing people. And it seems to have been somewhat properly orchestrated,” claimed Mkhize. “There was no one trying to assist us or maybe trying to help us to stop them from doing what they were doing to us”.
Mkhize also said the media is not telling the truth about what happened on the day of the Phoenix massacre. He added that, if journalists want video footage, there are a lot of people who would be able to assist them.
“If you need videos of what happened in Phoenix, you can ask us: we have such videos,” Mkhize said. When you are talking about the Phoenix massacre, you are only showing people carrying bags of rice. That’s not what happened.”
The public hearings continued into the afternoon and will resume on Thursday.