The mayor of eThekwini municipality, Mxolisi Kaunda, has described the killings in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal, during last July’s unrest as “a racist act” that should be dealt with as a criminal offence.
Testifying on Monday before the South African Human Rights Commission’s ongoing hearings into the violence, Kaunda said he became aware through social media of the killings in Phoenix of 36 mainly black people said to have been racially-profiled by residents as possible looters.
He said he had contracted Covid-19 and was in isolation at the time of the unrest. But this did not stop him from getting leaders to have discussions with residents to calm the situation.
Kaunda said he gained an understanding of some of the causes of the widespread looting, as well as the Phoenix killings, from social media, news reports and personal accounts from people who spoke to him.
Racial tensions had been aggravated by differences in social standing, the mayor said: “It would be naive to overlook the political disposition of the poor neighbourhoods, on one hand, and the affluent one on the other.
“The reality is, most of the discontent lay within the African communities, which happened to be poverty-stricken as well. Most of the non-African neighbourhoods were affluent and had much to lose should destruction come to their stores. This led to racial profiling, which resulted in Africans being treated as ‘looters’.”
Kaunda referred to roadblocks controlled by residents where “incidents of excessive use of force towards Africans, racially profiling assaults and killings” occurred.
Asked whether the July unrest was planned, funded and orchestrated, he said certain “groupings” had taken advantage of the situation in a well-orchestrated manner under the guise of being angry about the arrest of former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.
“There were people part of the looting because of their own socioeconomic conditions, which must not be condoned … but there are people who are just genuine and say ‘I see milk, I cannot afford to buy milk, let me go and then take milk ’cause I see everybody going there,” said Kaunda.
“But there were groupings that were well organised, who orchestrated their plans very clearly. Some of those groupings are people who bomb ATMs. Not a single poor person can bomb an ATM. It is someone who knows how to bomb ATMs. All these people took an opportunity during this period.”
Asked about the police service’s response to the unrest, which has been widely criticised, Kaunda conceded that police were “unprepared for the magnitude and extent of the unrest”. The limited number of metro police in eThekwini were “overstretched in protecting the municipality’s assets and infrastructure”.