Violent scenes from Phoenix unmasked the facade of SA’s rainbow nation
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With the country mopping up following violent protests in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, the country finds itself divided not only by class but also among racial lines as tensions ran high in some communities afflicted by the marauding violence.
Violent scenes that emerged particularly from Phoenix in KZN have thrust to the fore the issue of racism in the country and, in a way, unmasked the facade of South Africa's rainbow nation.
Black people, especially, in KZN found themselves at the receiving end of abuse, racism, segregation, and their movements restricted by white and Indian vigilantes demanding proof of residence when they tried to access facilities in their areas.
Early during the outbreak of violent looting in KZN and Gauteng provinces, various government officials publicly appealed to communities to rise up and protect their malls and other facilities, inadvertently – if not deliberately, legitimising the rapid springing-up of stop-and-search groups that effectively took over the security duties of their communities.
Yesterday, Police Minister Bheki Cele visited Phoenix and other communities in Durban affected by looting and violence. Cele and officials from KwaZulu-Natal also went to Bhambayi, Amaoti and Zwelisha to ensure that calm is restored.
“I am told that 25 people were killed, but after visiting the areas, I am told that there could be more people that were killed during the racial tension and criminality that took place in this place. People (black) told me that they are unable to go to Phoenix mortuary to collect or identify bodies of their loved ones so they can bury them,” Cele said.
Meanwhile, The Sunday Independent spoke to at least two people in KZN who narrated their ordeals at the hands of racist vigilante groups. The pair, who are essential workers, requested anonymity for fear of reprisals while they detailed their harrowing experiences.
A health practitioner said she was turned away from white areas simply for being black when she was simply looking for fuel to go to her place of employment where she works with Covid-19 patients.
"All the garages were dry around Pietermaritzburg. Next, I went to Montrose, near Grace, as I had worked in the area in the past. Before getting there, there were a lot of white people blocking the road and controlling traffic. I tried to cross a robot and saw many of them carrying baseball bats and security batons as though they were ready for war. They kept asking where I was going. I explained I was looking for petrol. They told me I should turn back, they don't need my kind in the area, and only residents were allowed to be in the area," she said.
"If you live here, you must prove it. We don't serve black people. I was very hurt and didn't argue; I just turned back and left," she said.
Her dreadful experience didn't end there. The following day, she set out once again, trying to find fuel to go to work. This time, clad in her nurse's uniform, she found herself at a garage in Mkhondeni. There was a line for essential workers, but the petrol was finished as she got to the pump.
"We were then told to go to another garage nearby. After spending two hours in a queue there, when I was ready to be assisted, a group of coloured men arrived, and they stormed the shop, spoke to the managers, and asked why they were helping black people in their area as we would create problems for them. Then the attendants said there is no petrol and we should all leave," she said.
"When we tried to ascertain who they were, they said they don't want to speak to black people, they are not asking us, but we should leave. This thing of racism is excruciating, and as things continue to unfold, the country will understand what life was like during apartheid," she said.
Another person, a company CEO, expressed his pain when he was turned away from a shop and told black people are not welcomed.
Mandla Mguni of Pietermaritzburg said what transpired in Phoenix awakened painful memories of life during apartheid.
"I never thought I would find myself in a situation where I would see people being requested to produce a proof of residence to move around. I really thought apartheid was over and we were healing the divides of the past and building a rainbow nation. We have clearly been lying to ourselves. This country is still racist," Mguni said.
Cele, a prominent government face in attempting to quell the tensions, elaborated: “We have no reason for killing people, now we have to agree on a few things, things that went wrong if they went wrong they need to be corrected, somebody committed a crime, and that person needs to be accounted for.”
The four communities Cele visited all complained about the lack of police visibility in their area that led to people taking things into their own hands.
Cele responded: “Yes, things could have been better. As a government, we have to put out our microscope and find out what was wrong, and people must account at all levels. If that wrong was at a certain level, from the ministry to a constable, let accountability take place,” he said.
Cele added that a sense of insecurity led to communities who were feeling vulnerable taking the responsibility of protecting their families, “which is nothing wrong with it”.
“What could have been wrong,” Cele explained, “Is that it (if) did not happen within the framework of the law. South African law agrees that police can and should work with the communities, those structures must work within the law and be supported by police. There are things that can only be done by the police or civil arrest, If you are a good citizen. If you break the law, you become a criminal, war unto you.”
President Ramaphosa also made a U-turn on his initial assertion that the riots were ethnically motivated when he spoke to the media during his visit to KZN on Friday. He vowed to bring to book a dozen of alleged instigators that authorities claim are behind the orchestrated week of looting, destruction of commercial properties and the deaths of at least 212.
Sankarist David Letsoalo said: "A situation where groupings are allowed to assume law enforcement initiatives is likely going to create a fertile ground for racial tensions because of the apartheid spatial planning realities. Such situations inevitably breed vigilantism.
“It further gives racists in such communities an opportunity and an excuse to vent their racial frustrations and hatred in the guise of defending lives, livelihoods, children and properties. The situation we have now is putting the police in an awkward position because it won't make sense to stop these community defence groups when you cannot protect them."
Political analyst Dr Ralph Mathekga said he was worried about vigilantism in communities, but he attributed this to the state's failure. He said the government needed to redeem itself and be able to be present.
"We don't want vigilantism. Communities should protect themselves by organising themselves in a way that they share information with the police. It should not be about the community protecting themselves and not taking the law into their own hands. The government needs to understand that these happen simply because the state institutions are not present through the police," he said.
Professor Siphamandla Zondi said vigilantism always begins as concerned citizens seek to defend the peace of their areas from the failure of law enforcement to secure them.
"In this case, the failure of police to anticipate and stop many cases of looting all could anticipate the harbour and warehouses were the most glaring. But also in communities where people watched as little boys caused mayhem were forced to take a stand. But in the process, we have seen overreaction because civilians are not trained to police and anger boils," he said.
Zondi added that the racial tension between Africans and Indians, especially in Durban, has been a long-standing issue and gets triggered every time.
"At the centre of it is competition for meagre resources. We have to expand socio-economic opportunities as we deal with attitudes and prejudices at the same time. These are features of a national question that remains unresolved in this country," Zondi said.
A senior researcher for crime and justice programme at the Institute of Security Studies (ISS), Johan Burger, said protecting own property and lives was not necessarily an act of vigilantism, but it becomes vigilante action when those involved resort to unlawful action such "as we saw in some video images where alleged looters were caught and assaulted".
"There are also reported incidents of shootings at and killing of alleged looters, which will be completely unlawful should the shooters or others in their immediate vicinity not have faced direct threats of serious bodily harm, including the threat of being killed," said Burger.
He said he does not believe that vigilantism was on the rise at this stage but admitted that they do not have enough research to state it as a fact.
"We should, however, not rely on incidents of possible vigilante action during the widespread violence, destruction and looting over the past few days to try and determine a trend. I am convinced that to the extent public violence and looting is reduced, we will see a proportional decrease in related incidents of vigilantism.