/ 29 July 2021

A time for collective grief: Reflections on the Phoenix Massacre

Safrica Unrest Politics Economy Vigilantes
Community members gather around a road block they set up in Phoenix, north of Durban, on July 15, 2021 to prevent looters from reaching the community. File photo by GUILLEM SARTORIO / AFP

My two sons, aged 23 and 17, were with their dad in Durban in the week of the insurgence. Living in the relative safety of a moderately untouched Cape Town suburb, my heart sank when I received a message from my older son asking if he could join the “men of the neighbourhood” to protect the middle-class suburb of Westville. 

I feared that my largely sheltered son did not have the street-smarts that I obtained growing up in the working-class township of Phoenix, and that if he joined this group, he would have to rely solely on his instincts, his physique and the help of the older men to navigate their “protection plan”.

My anxiety developed into full-blown dread over the next few days with each recollection of my formative years in Phoenix. I was quite accustomed to the images of toxic, violent masculinities that were being circulated on social media. This time, the images were more disturbing because it wasn’t only bush-knife wielding men that we were seeing, it was men with live ammunition and rifles. 

The horrifying images of shooting people in the back and literally kicking people while they were down summoned my childhood memories of these deadly masculinities spurred on by a pernicious mixture of socioeconomic depravity, fear and drugs. It wasn’t just gendered insecurity at play, this time; at the heart of this matter was racist anxiety.

 To be clear, protecting our loved ones from harm and destruction is brave and noble. But the outrage behind the trending hashtag #Phoenixmassacre had little to do with condemning people for their protection efforts through ethical and principled means. 

Therefore, the insistence on framing the brutality in terms of the protection narrative is disingenuous. 

Furthermore, the defensiveness behind the “but” that inevitably follow explanations of the media coverage of the killings, without due acknowledgment of the pain and suffering of black families who lost loved ones is both cold and callous. 

The spirits of the black bodies in the Phoenix morgue are calling our attention to the shameful violence against those bodies. This viciousness was shared with a sense of despicable heroic pride amid eerily triumphant shouts of “Die ‘Mader-Chod’s”. 

Our ongoing responses to the hashtag are revealing much about our collective moral character and who we are as a people. Claiming colour-blindness, despite the damning evidence supporting racial profiling in many spots in Phoenix, and appealing to examples of charity towards black siblings as a response to the outrage of the killings obscure the truth of racist predispositions that persist in the area. 

We are all too familiar with the wounded racial anxieties that surface during social gatherings regarding affirmative action, or how conversations go down the slippery slope of claims that things might have been better during apartheid. 

We therefore cannot hide behind colour blindness. A colour-blind approach to race relations seeks to locate the reason for racist actions somewhere else — such as in the looting — instead of in racist attitudes. We should see colour and see difference, because the problem is not with difference. The problem is with discrimination and bigotry based on difference. And when rifles are placed alongside bigotry and racism, killings of the kind we witnessed in Phoenix occur.

How can we use this dreadful mess to start having the real and difficult conversations that we need to have? Perhaps the first step towards any form of healing is an admission that race was one of the factors that contributed to the killings. To do this, we have to be truthful with ourselves about our realities.

Is it possible to acknowledge the truth of the racism alongside commemorating the courage of those who protected their neighbourhoods through nonracist means? 

These two truths do not have to exist outside of each other or as dangerous dichotomies.

Those bodies that lie unclaimed in the Phoenix mortuary bear witness to the horrific, logical end of racial profiling in neighbourhoods where certain people still “don’t belong”. 

My family and I regularly experience this racial profiling in our neighbourhood in Cape Town, and even seriously considered how we would be profiled if this happened here. 

So, if you are still saying “but we thought they were looters” in response to the #Phoenixmassacre then think about which end of that racial profiling spectrum you are on in white neighbourhoods that use codes such as “BM” and “CM” to refer to black and coloured men, as they do in my neighbourhood WhatsApp groups. 

My neighbourhood Whatsapp group and the more deadly Phoenix killings all point to one thing — we are very far off from recognising the inalienable right of a black body to exist as autonomous and sacred, and not to be reduced to a racial demographic that is considered dangerous and killable in a time of threat.