Durban, South Africa – For Philisiwe Ngcobo, 45, a crippling wave of anxiety began to set in when the sun went down and her 34-year-old brother, Bhekinkosi Ngcobo, had not returned home.
“My brother left our house around 6pm to find fuel in Phoenix; when he didn’t return we started to look for him everywhere,” said Ngcobo. “The next time I saw my brother was at a mortuary.”
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Her brother was brutally beaten to death and his car burned beyond recognition on July 12.
Violent protests, riots and looting rocked South Africa in July for more than a week, leaving more than 300 dead and hundreds of businesses destroyed.
Amid the unrest, historical racial tensions between African and Indian communities exploded in Phoenix – a predominantly ethnically Indian town on the outskirts of Durban, KwaZulu-Natal province.
According to official reports, groups of Indian residents in Phoenix and surrounding areas formed vigilante groups to protect their property. Allegedly armed with semiautomatic rifles, machetes and pistols, the groups formed illegal roadblocks and burned tyres to bar access to their areas.
These initiatives, Police Minister Bheki Cele said in a press briefing in Phoenix on August 3, gave birth to the “heinous criminal and racist incidents that resulted in brutal killings and injuries, horrendous damage to property, and untold pain and trauma”.
Thirty-six people died in Phoenix during the unrest.
A neighbour, who was with Ngcobo’s brother and survived the gruesome attack, told Ngcobo that there were 15 to 20 assailants, and claimed that two police officers stood by as the attack took place.
Still reeling from the loss, Ngcobo feels palpable anger. No one has yet been arrested for the killing. But she is hopeful that police officers who allegedly witnessed the crime can help.
“I want them to point out my brother’s killers,” she said.
According to police minister Cele, 33 people have been arrested for the killings that took place during the week of riots in Phoenix. He said that a 31-member detective team was working with a team of prosecutors to ensure justice for the lives lost in Phoenix.
“Police investigations found that 36 people were killed in Phoenix, 30 people were shot, two were burned to death, one was stabbed and one was run over,” he said.
Community activists, however, insist that the real number of deaths is almost double the official toll.
Jackie Shandu, the organiser of the Justice for Victims of Phoenix Massacre community group set up in the wake of the violence, claims a source at the Phoenix mortuary told them at least 74 people were murdered during the unrest.
“We can’t reveal the name of the staff member at the mortuary at this time, but the real number is appallingly high,” Shandu said.
The grassroots group made up of families of victims and community members marched to City Hall in Durban recently demanding justice and systemic change.
“The apartheid legacy that put Indians above Africans in the economic hierarchy of this society laid the foundation for Indian people to look down on us – not just in Durban, in South Africa as a whole,” said Shandu.
“We don’t just want compensation for the families who lost their loved ones, we want substantive economic inclusion of Black people.”
Economic inequality across racial lines remains stark in South Africa. The average monthly salary was 6,899 rand ($469) for Black South Africans, 14,235 rand ($967) for Asian South Africans, and 24,646 rand ($1,674) for white South Africans, according to a Statistics SA report released in February 2020.
According to Shandu, the traumatic incidents of racial violence in Phoenix left many survivors facing destitution.
“What we’re seeing is that a lot of survivors have sustained life-altering injuries. One man had his hands chopped off,” Shandu said.
KwaZulu-Natal provincial police said they are also investigating 52 cases of attempted murder, 16 cases of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and nine cases of common assault from the unrest in Phoenix and surrounding areas.
Gcina Yandeni, 26, quit her job as a domestic worker for an Indian family in Phoenix on July 12, following the violence that engulfed the community. She described the man she worked for as being “out for blood”.
According to Yandeni, in response to stories of looting and riots, the Indian community in Clayfield, Phoenix formed a WhatsApp group and named it “neighbourhood watch” the night that vigilantism started in her area.
“At around 7pm, my boss went to a meeting where over 200 Indian people had converged; they dispersed shortly and my boss came in to get his firearms,” said Yandeni.
“He looked excited; his eyes looked crazy.”
Yandeni alleges that her former employer later bragged that he joined the large group and went down to the petrol station where they barricaded the road with burning tyres and large rocks, and would open fire on “anything black, even black dogs”.
Police under fire
With 25,000 members of the South African National Defence Force still deployed in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng provinces, calm on the streets of Phoenix seems to have been restored.
But many feel that the government’s and police’s responses to the violence and unrest that unfolded have been grossly inadequate.
On July 12, Ntwenhle Mhlongo’s 19-year-old son, Sanele Mngomezulu, was shot dead – allegedly by vigilantes – while driving with friends. His body was dumped on the side of the road in Trenance Park Drive, Phoenix.
According to Mhlongo, the police have provided little information about the investigation and have not told her whether any arrests have been made in relation to her son’s murder.
“They keep speaking about property, but my son was looted,” said Mhlongo. “I just want justice for my son.”
South African Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview that the authorities acted too slowly.
“There were multiple preventative measures that the police could have taken as soon as personal accounts of racial profiling and targeted assaults started to emerge, like increased visibility in affected areas,” she said.
“There were videos of Black people being shot execution-style by people brandishing illegal firearms and nothing was done to stop the vigilantism,” added Mkhwebane.
In addition to allegations over the police’s lax response, Mkhwebane accused the mainstream media of largely failing to cover the racial violence.
“The media failed to be the voice of the marginalised at a time when it was most imperative,” she said.
Ministry of Police Spokesperson Lirandzu Themba told Al Jazeera that a full investigation has been launched into the conduct and response of the police during the unrest.
“We understand some of the allegations being made against the police’s response as well as involvement of private security firms in the violence that took place in Phoenix, and we are investigating all concerns,” Themba said.
A veteran police officer from Chatsworth Police Station in Durban, who wished not to be named for fear of reprisal, told Al Jazeera: “Sometimes the situation doesn’t allow us to combat criminals head-on, but now that there are resources, we are moving in swiftly to arrest the criminals.”
The officer, who is Black, said he was not on the ground when the violence was taking place due to fears over his own safety.
“A lot of us were scared that they might kill us as well. They don’t care about the uniform; they see a Black man,” he said.
‘We just want justice’
On July 24, the day Ngcobo laid her brother to rest, community members filled the funeral venue’s capacity.
“My brother was senselessly killed. We just want justice. We want closure,” an impassioned Ngcobo told the almost 100 people in attendance.
“Lawlessness prevailed and now we, on the other side of the hill, sink deeper in despair.”
Chris Biyela, the organiser of a peace committee made up of community members elected from Phoenix and surrounding areas, says that in order for peace to truly be restored, the culprits that took part in vigilantism must be held accountable for the bloodshed.
“A lot of the senseless killings were recorded; the police must use these videos as evidence to bring the culprits to book. Black people want peace between the communities. But first, we want justice.”