Phoenix racial tension doused for now
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Durban - Calm in the greater Phoenix area tottered on a knife’s edge for much of this week as a full blown race war was averted through the ring of steel provided by the SAPS and the defence force and the subsequent engagement between community leaders.
The uneasiness between blacks and Indians living in close proximity to each other is believed to have been ignited by some overzealous patrollers manning barricades that were meant to prevent looters from invading homes and businesses in Phoenix.
In the name of protecting their turf, some patrollers assaulted and killed suspected looters, damaged cars and property of motorists attempting to drive through barricades, while some residents from the neighbouring Bhambayi, Amaoti and Zwelisha areas also responded with violence.
Thus far, 20 people, the majority black, have been confirmed dead.
Police suspect the figure could be higher considering missing persons reports and unidentified bodies in mortuaries.
Police Minister Bheki Cele and local community leaders were at hotspots yesterday attempting to reinforce the truce that had been achieved and plot the way forward.
Cele addressed concerned residents and listened to their concerns. Committees were also formed in the affected areas to ensure lasting racial harmony was achieved.
Some residents pleaded with Cele to help them identify and retrieve the bodies of their loved ones, who were killed in Phoenix.
Zandile Mthembu, 25, told of how, in spite of having documents proving her ownership of the vehicle she drove, it was torched by a group of Indian men on Monday.
She and other community members shared their experiences of misfortune with Cele.
“I was driving alone on the Phoenix Highway to buy chronic medication for my grandmother-in-law when I came across a group of people. One banged my car deliberately. It was like I was in a movie. When I pulled over, it was torched immediately. It was painful to watch the car that I worked hard for, burning in front of me.”
Mthembu said the men accused her of being a looter and took her to a nearby river, where one of them pointed a gun to her head.
“I begged for mercy. I told them they already killed me by burning (my car) and assaulting me.”
She managed to escape when an Indian woman suggested she run through a nearby bush, and when she reached the other side, the lady’s husband and son drove Mthembu to a place of safety.
While there she called her partner, when he arrived, he too was attacked by the same group of men.
Police managed to quell the situation. Mthembu’s partner and other men were arrested but later released.
Another man shared how his brother was allegedly killed while driving home from work because he was black.
The incident also happened on the Phoenix Highway.
“Many of us cannot retrieve the bodies of our loved ones because roads are still closed. My brother was not in a yard or shop of any Indian (home), but he was travelling on a public road,” said the man.
The community that engaged with Cele demanded transparency in the investigations into the killings and assaults on people.
Cele said: “We have set up a team of 10 police officers who are not from Phoenix to investigate. Please, work with the police. As a community, please elect people who can be your representatives.”
Umesh Singh, the chairperson of the Phoenix Police Forum, said yesterday’s meetings had the desired effect as it brought about a sense of peace, which was not the case for much of the week, and it got the affected communities talking again.
It was also heartening for Singh that Cele promised a further deployment of security forces to the area.
Singh said, if each elected committee stuck to the mandate given, lasting peace will be achieved.
About last week’s violence, he said much of it was unnecessary, especially the attack on innocent motorists and other passerbys heading to work.
“You cannot restrict people’s movement. We have lived in harmony for so many years. I believe there is a third force at play, causing the flare-ups.”
Singh said social media added fuel to the fire through false and propaganda messages, which had them fearing the worst.
Xolani Dube, a founder of the Xubera Institute for Research and Development, said society must use the devastation brought about by the recent violent scenes and looting that played out in KZN and Gauteng to build relations between races.
He was optimistic that it could be achieved and pointed at how people of all different race groupings had joined arms to effect mopping operations in the aftermath of violence.
He blamed the ruling ANC for the outbreak of violence and simmering racial tensions.
“People have relied on the ANC for the past 27 years. We voted them into power, believing they would take us to the promised land, but they have not.
“We can’t blame Indians, coloured or anyone else. We blame ourselves as black people because we have allowed people who have no passion and ethics and morals to lead us.”
Dube said black people needed to do some introspection.
“We claim that we own this country, then we should not burn it.
“The problem is that in the black communities, there is the lack of leaders. Our leaders are expecting patronage from the ANC, which has resulted in townships being neglected.
“We end up with concepts and slogans, but we don’t implement them. The political elite is letting us down, so too the black middle class and those who are salivating for the crumbs of ANC patronage. We need to move away from this.”
Dube said they gathered a group of like-minded, forward-thinking black people who are not opportunists but upstanding citizens to provide practical solutions.
On Friday, they engaged the Minister of Agriculture as food security was one area of concern.
Dube said they had 10 workstreams to address various issues affecting societies, including health, logistics, security, and community stakeholder relations.
Duwayne Essa, a campaign office with the Institute of Race Relations said while there are undertones to the unrest that occurred, it is due to decades of governance and policy failure failures on the part of the government.
It has failed to provide economic and job growth. This allowed for a powder keg situation, and the arrest of Jacob Zuma set off the powder keg.
“We are launching a campaign this week to save our economy. It will be our solution to the challenges the country is facing. It is more practical and achievable,” said Essa.