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“There was no humanity in Phoenix, no one came to help us.” This was the testimony of Ntethelelo Mkhize from Ntuzuma, north of Durban on the third day of the South African Human Rights Commission’s (SAHRC) investigation into the July unrest held at the Gateway Hotel in uMhlanga, Durban on Wednesday.  

The July Unrest Hearing which started on Monday, 15 November, is planned to be heard over a three-week period until 3 December 2021. The commission said it was exercising its constitutional mandate by conducting the hearings into the civil unrest and looting which swept through KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng, focusing on the causes of the violence as well as the impact on human rights.

Mkhize told the panel of commissioners – including chairperson, Andre Gaum, deputy chairperson Chris Nissen, chief panelist, Philile Ntuli and external experts appointed by the panel – it was like a game for the vigilantes who laughed and took video of the violence. “They were acting like monsters,” said Mkhize who was shot four times.

His nightmare began on 12 July when he and eight others were on their way home after visiting a friend in Cornubia Flats. He said they decided to take a shortcut through Phoenix but were stopped by a vigilante group of about 20 boys and men who were blocking the road with burning tyres and carryied golf sticks, bush knives and guns.

“They stopped us, and checked what was in our vehicle. It annoyed me because I didn’t know why they would stop us. I was also irritated by the manner in which they requested to search the vehicle which was laced with anger and insults,” said Mkhize. The 37-year-old lecturer at a TVET colleges in Durban said the group consisted of Indian males, some as young as 12 years by Mkhize’s estimation. Chaos ensued when one man hit his Nissan Hardbody bakkie with an axe as they were driving away after being searched, which angered his passengers.

One of his friends,Mzwandile Magwaza, alighted from the vehicle and went to speak to a person who seemed like a leader of the group, even as the vigilantes hurled insults at them, “calling us Zuma people and monkeys. To be honest I did not respond to their insults,” Mkhize said. And that is when they started hitting the vehicle with stones and when another occupant, Nzuza, came out he was hit with something and fell down. “After they hit Nzuza, the one who seemed to be their leader, shot at him. There was a time that they were poking him with the firearm and putting it in his mouth. Nzunza was then shot,” he said.

While all of this was going on they were taking pictures and videos. “I moved the car slowly but they continued shooting and hacking the vehicle with bush knives, [and] when I finally stopped, a fat Indian guy shot me from the left window two times and they told me to 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 by another Indian who was fair in complexion,“ Mkhize said. He later landed on someone’s gate where he fainted and regained consciousness in the Phoenix Community Health Clinic known as Unit 10 Clinic, at around 8pm.

Mkhize said he doesn’t remember how he got to the clinic. He saw people lying on the floor covered in blood, most with wounds consistent with bush knives and axes. He was transferred to Addington Hospital the next day where he underwent two surgeries, both unsuccessful as he was left with an open wound in his stomach. 

Bhambayi, one of the townships neighbouring Phoenix, does not have a clinic, library or sports grounds. Residents have to go to Phoenix to access public services. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Three of Mkhize’s friends he was travelling with on the day died from injuries they sustained. Mkhize, who was in immense pain, showed the panel and the media images of his injuries to corroborate his testimony. He accused the media for misrepresenting what really transpired in Phoenix, only showing images and videos of black people looting when this did not happen in Phoenix.

He said the impact of the unrest has gravely affected him; he cannot sleep without sleeping tablets as flashbacks plague his sleep. He also said his mother got sick after hearing the news. “There were even news stories of my death which left my family distraught. I spent three weeks and a few days in a coma. I have so much anger; I want justice and I am hoping that government will somehow compensate me for the vehicle,” Mkhize said. His vehicle was reported to have been torched but his efforts to find it up to date have proven fruitless.

Residents of Phoenix say that the police were absent during the violence that resulted in 36 people being killed in July. Photo by Mzi Velapi

Mzwandile Magwaza, a second witness who was also travelling with Mkhize on 12 July, testified that the incident has affected him badly, leaving him with a lot of anger and a reluctance to talk about what happened.

He told the commission that he witnessed a lot of hatred for black people during the unrest. “I witnessed how people were affected. When I went to Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hospital to look for the rest of the people I was travelling with, I saw people who were lying on the floor at the hospital some wrapped in sheets bleeding. I was told that if I was looking for someone I must shout their names and also unwrap the sheets. There were people lying on the floor even outside the door of the hospital,” said Magwaza.

Magwaza said he was assisted by an Indian colleague of his who came to fetch him at the river where he was hiding after the assault. “I was injured though it was not bad… in the leg, back of my thigh and in the arm. When I returned the following day to look for the others, I was not scared, I asked a police officer to assist me but he refused so I went with a friend of mine who is a soldier and when they stopped us, I showed them a firearm and they would back away,” said Magwaza.

According to the commission, the unrest exacerbated, amongst other things, inequality between certain communities, unemployment levels, poverty, hunger, and food insecurity.