Witness barely escaped Phoenix with his life

It was another emotional day at the South African Human Rights Commission’s public hearings into the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng, with one witness relating how he escaped being one of the fatalities.

On day seven of the public hearings, Mbuso Xaba, a resident of KwaMashu in  KwaZulu-Natal, recounted his personal experiences in what has been called the Phoenix massacre during which 36 people were killed. 

The violence that rocked KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng was triggered by protests over the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.

Xaba told the Human Rights Commission how he and three young men aged between 18 and 21 years were assaulted at multiple barricades walled by Indian men on 12 July in Phoenix. 

Xaba was on his way to the airport with three passengers when he realised he did not have enough fuel to complete the journey. 

“We were well aware of the looting and unrest in the country,” said Xaba, noting that petrol stations in his hometown were closed, even though there was no looting happening there. He was forced to go to neighbouring Phoenix in search of petrol.

As he approached a garage, a group of Indian men indicated he should stop his vehicle. It was the first roadblock Xaba encountered that day. 

Described as the “ringleader” an elderly man asked Xaba where he was heading, and whether he was part of the looting. After hearing he was on his way to the airport, the elderly man said he could go. 

But as he was leaving Xaba’s vehicle was stoned while a group of “armed men” approached him. 

“They carried basketball bats, axes, bush knives and firearms,” recalled Xaba, echoing the testimony of another witness, Ntethelelo Mkhize, before the commission the previous week.

At first he was not sure whether the men were security guards, but he soon came to understand they were not, as they started to assault him and the young men, physically and verbally. 

“They called us Zuma’s dogs and [the k-word],” remembered a clearly emotional Xaba.

While the three young men managed to escape, Xaba only later got the chance to drive away with his damaged car. 

Not finding the young men, he worried about what he would tell their parents about not returning the boys home safely.

In less than five kilometres, Xaba drove into another barricade, and the same scenario repeated. Except, this time, “a young Indian boy hit me with a rock at the back of my head as I was lying on the floor,” remembers Xaba. 

He recalls the men accusing him: “You are here to loot. We are also here to loot you!”

Xaba claims he was lying on the ground and bleeding when an unmarked police vehicle stopped and two police officers, dressed in civilian clothes and wearing bulletproof vests, approached them. 

He pleaded with the police to escort him out of the area, but they allegedly told him they could not help, adding: “You must drive off. If you stay you will die.”

Xaba left the scene as the police were also leaving. 

This was not the last encounter Xaba would have with similar groups of men. While attempting to leave Phoenix, he recalled yet another encounter, where he was forced by an Indian man carrying a shotgun to sit on the ground in front of his car when a black woman, who looked older than 50, emerged. She was crying and looked to have been heavily beaten up, said Xaba. 

According to him, the woman was a domestic worker who was coming from work when she, too, was assaulted. 

Fortunately, this time police and private security officers reached the scene and promised they would escort them out of Phoenix. 

Asked by evidence leader Rantso Moraka about how he feels following the incident, Xaba said: “I have so much anger towards Indians, they should have said they wanted war, instead of ambushing us.”

He later added: “I know not all Indians are racist. I have Indian friends who after that day wanted to visit me, but they are now afraid to visit KwaMashu as Indians.” 

The SAHRC offered Xaba counselling after his testimony on Tuesday. 

The public hearings continued, with the commission hearing evidence from Umlazi resident Bongani Mkhize on events in the Durban area of Wentworth during the July violence.

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Eunice Stoltz
Eunice Stoltz is a general news reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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