Members of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) together with witness Chris Biyela, who testified before the commission this week, walking through the various spots that were barricaded on the Phoenix Highway. Picture: Theo Jeptha/African News Agency (ANA)
Members of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) together with witness Chris Biyela, who testified before the commission this week, walking through the various spots that were barricaded on the Phoenix Highway. Picture: Theo Jeptha/African News Agency (ANA)

July unrest: It was the first week of tears, drama, cops clashing with SAHRC, shocking witness testimony

By Jehran Naidoo Time of article published Nov 20, 2021

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Durban - Week one of the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) hearing into the causes and effects of the civil unrest in July came to a close on Friday, when the commission conducted an inspection in loco at various spots around Phoenix and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal.

The commission visited various stops along the Phoenix Highway where barricades were set up by community members who feared for their lives and property, as the ‘free Jacob Zuma’ protest spiralled out of control, leaving shopping malls and municipal assets destroyed in its wake.

It also visited the Phoenix police station, where lead investigator Advocate Buang Jones and the station commander got into a heated exchange of words over mandates and protocols.

The Phoenix and surrounding areas like Amaoti, Bhambayi and Zwelitsha and Pietermaritzburg were among the areas hardest hit by mass looting and violence during the “failed insurrection”, as it was referred to by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

It also visited the Phoenix police station, where lead investigator Advocate Buang Jones and the station commander got into a heated exchange of words over mandates and protocols.

The Phoenix and surrounding areas like Amaoti, Bhambayi and Zwelitsha and Pietermaritzburg were among the areas hardest hit by mass looting and violence during the “failed insurrection”, as it was referred to by President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Around 36 people died in the Phoenix area during the unrest, while areas like Chatsworth and Overport also saw its fair share of violence.

Video: Jehran Naidoo/IOL Politics

“Others were carrying golf clubs, bush knives and guns. That's when I saw them assaulting Mr Magwaza, because he was behind the car talking to the men. After they hit Nzuza, the one who seemed to be their leader shot at him.

“They were taking pictures and videos while this was happening. They told me to run to the river, run to the river. I tried to run and I fell, I was then shot again, for the third time, in my back. Next to my spinal cord,” 37 year-old Ntethelelo Mkhize told the commission on Wednesday.

Sham Maharaj, a community activist from Phoenix, said on Tuesday that it was not a massacre but rather “a killing”. He said Phoenix was the scapegoat for the unrest.

Maharaj said the media played a negative role in the unrest and the way the Phoenix area was portrayed. He also said politicians used the unrest to push their own agendas, which to some extent, was backed up by Melanie Veness, CEO of the Pietermaritzburg and Midlands Chamber of Commerce.

Veness told the commission on Thursday that she got word of politicians in the province who were in support of the looting and violence. She said that police were instructed to stand down, according to her sources, and that the unrest was an orchestrated attack.

“I tend to speak to people like the brigadiers and captains, I have their cellphone numbers and there was no response. They had teargas but weren't allowed to use it themselves.

“It was a while after the unrest that the premier called a meeting. I was very vocal and told them publicly that from the ground there was complicity. We were also told our local politicians were fine with the looting.

“They were not saying the looting was wrong. If you are not going to condemn what happened and you value the investment, you give some kind of reassurance to business and people. That still hasn't happened,” Veness said.

Durban Chamber of Commerce CEO Palesa Phili told the commission that the Chamber had been engaging with police long before the unrest occurred over the high levels of crime in Durban and its impact on the economy, but not much had been done about it.

“When I talk about crime, I talk about those issues and challenges that were there, but nothing has been done with it. Here in eThekwini we have problems with the construction mafia. Businesses have frustrations with crime before they invest in Durban. A proposal was sent through to the premier about a year and a half ago. It was approved but the challenge of getting funding arose,” Phili said.

South Africa’s deputy President David Mabuza said yesterday that there is no justification to mention the names of the so-called “agent provocateurs” behind the July unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng because the accused have appeared in court.

“We are pleased the affected provinces KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are starting to normalise, businesses and logistics networks are back in full operations,” Mabuza said during an oral question session in the National Council of Provinces.

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