UKZN hosts round-table conference to unravel Phoenix violence
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THE University of KwaZulu-Natal recently conducted a think-tank session that brought academics and local experts together, under the theme: Things Fall Apart? The Rule of Law in Unprecedented Times, which thrust July’s looting and violence, especially the incidents in Phoenix, under the microscope.
It has been estimated by some experts that the social unrest cost the country more than R20 billion, thousands of small and big businesses were affected, scores of jobs lost and hundreds of people who lost their lives, which some described as the worst event since the 1990s.
The stirring of racial tensions between Indians and Africans who were living in close proximity to each other in the Phoenix area, north of Durban became a moot point.
It has been alleged that having set-up barricades in various parts of Phoenix to keep out looters, some patrollers targeted and maliciously attacked Africans, which also gave rise to some revenge attacks.
The violence in Phoenix alone accounted for 36 lives, with many of the dead being residents of the neighbouring KwaMashu, Amaoti, Inanda and Bhambayi communities.
Professor Paulus Zulu, who was a speaker at UKZN’s round-table conference on Wednesday said, despite the transition to democracy, race relations in South Africa was always tenuous, in spite of the Constitutional pronouncements of a rainbow nation celebrating its nationhood in its diversity.
He stated that governance failures hindered the development of a true rainbow nation.
“Therefore, what happened in Phoenix, during the July’s widespread looting was no isolated incident.
“I refer to Phoenix because much ink was spent in reporting and analysis of the violence which broke out in this predominantly Indian township disregarding the fact that an overwhelming majority of the looters came from the African population, and that looting took place predominantly in large commercial centres.”
Zulu said those who commented on the Phoenix episode tended to put an accent on the racial question.
To him it appeared to be a very simplistic approach, “picking on the low hanging fruit as is usual in South Africa’s tendency to treat incidents in isolation with the result that we end up with populist versions of the narrative”.
He believed the violence stemmed from deep-rooted tensions arising from the country’s failure to address the racial architecture of the colonial and apartheid eras and singled out issues like segregated spatial planning and tensions in the economic sphere for the inherent harm they carried.
Zulu said when the looting spread to Phoenix, naturally, Indian business owners mobilised to protect their properties and armed themselves.
As could be expected, the situation took an ugly racial trajectory, resulting in the killing of Africans, some of whom had nothing to do with the looting.
“It must be emphasised that no African residents of Phoenix suffered this fate nor were they in any way molested.
“What happened in Phoenix could have happened in any location situated in a similar configuration.”
He also apportioned blame to the ANC’s factional make-up, resulting in opposing factions wrestling each other for access to the State’s trough.
In the aftermath of July’s violence, it has naturally become the duty of the National Prosecuting Authority to prosecute those who defied the rule of law and contributed to the anarchy.
Advocate Roshiela Benimadho, the NPA’s senior public prosecutor, who was also one of the speakers, brought into context that individuals’ right to protest was guarded by rules of governance in the country, but the unlawful activity that happened during some protests were problematic.
Benimadho said they noticed that mob violence was used as a bargaining tool against the government and to debilitate law enforcement because police are not able to be in more than one place at the same time.
Regarding the NPA’s subsequent role, Benimadho said: “As a creature of statutes, we are mandated to conduct criminal proceedings on behalf of the State, as it is our Constitutional duty to uphold the rule of law in society, to prosecute those who offended the law. And, to do so fearlessly.”
She explained that the rule of law means people must obey the law, and if they commit crimes, there must be consequences so that others would be deterred.
Regarding July’s violence, Benimadho said their team had done site inspections and found that the actual loss and damage to property in some of the affected places was nothing compared to what the media reported.
Their investigations revealed that the looting was “highly organised” and was planned and incited by certain individuals.
They noted that the main break-ins and burnings were done late at night or early in the morning, which made detection of perpetrators very difficult.
“In almost all the areas and stores that had CCTV cameras, security rooms were broken into and the video recorders were stolen.
“I have never seen this in any other unrest situation before, which goes to show the level of premeditation.”
Benimadho said trucks and vans were also immediately on the scene to carry away loot, and not all the looters were people living in poverty or unemployed.
She recognised that what society wants to see from the NPA now is retribution and justice served.
“That will be inherent in the series of prosecutions we have embarked on.”