John Eligon and Zanele Mji, New York Times, September 4, 2021
The blows thundered down — bats, a hammer, a field hockey stick — as Njabulo Dlamini lay curled on the pavement, trying to summon the strength to move.
He and five friends, all of them Black, had been driving in a minibus taxi through the streets of Phoenix, a predominantly Indian suburb created from the forced racial segregation of apartheid South Africa.
A mob surrounded them, dragged them from the taxi, made them lie on the pavement and beat them furiously, according to witnesses and video footage obtained by The New York Times. Some of Mr. Dlamini’s friends managed to escape. Others were chased and beaten again by the crowd, which had been whipped up in recent days by WhatsApp warnings and reports of violence by Black people streaming into their community to loot shopping centers. Mr. Dlamini barely made it across the street. He later died of his injuries at the hospital, his family said.
South Africa was convulsed in recent months by some of its worst civil unrest since the end of apartheid. The imprisonment of former President Jacob Zuma for refusing to appear before a corruption inquiry set off violent protests by his supporters. Soon, riots and looting erupted in parts of the country, fed by broad disgust at poverty, inequality and the government’s failure to provide even the most basic services, like water or electricity. Officials have called the violence an insurrection — an attempt to sabotage Mr. Zuma’s rival and successor, President Cyril Ramaphosa, in part by stoking some of the nation’s oldest racial tensions.
Nationwide, more than 340 people died in the mayhem, many in stampedes or circumstances that remain unclear. But government officials have been alarmed by a dynamic that, they say, dangerously undermines the social order: dozens of vigilante killings by ordinary citizens.
The vigilantism was especially pronounced in Phoenix, a working-class community of about 180,000 near the country’s east coast. The country’s police minister said that 36 people there — 33 of them Black — were killed in what some officials are calling a massacre. Fifty-six people have now been arrested in connection with the violence in Phoenix.
Mobs of mostly Indian residents, worried that their community was under siege, erected roadblocks on street corners. They indiscriminately stopped Black people, and sometimes beat or killed them, the police said, inflaming the long-fragile relationship between Black and Indian South Africans — two marginalized groups under white apartheid rule.
The authorities have been far less open about their roles in the upheaval. Interviews with dozens of Black and Indian residents in the Phoenix area, as well as a review of previously unreported video footage, show that at least some of the violence and deaths could have been prevented if the police had provided basic security.
Phoenix sits atop the lush green hills north of Durban, almost completely surrounded by townships and shack settlements that are predominantly Black. The communities bleed into each other, but are deeply divided by design.
While the apartheid government deemed Black and Indian people inferior to the white population, Indians, who first came to South Africa in large numbers as indentured laborers in 1860, were placed above Black people in the racial hierarchy. This afforded Indians access to better education, freer movement and sturdier homes than their Black neighbors — differences that were enshrined in law, dictated where people lived and sowed lasting resentments.
Many Black township residents still live in crammed, low-slung houses with detached toilet sheds. Phoenix, though plagued by crime and poverty, has more robust homes, passed down through generations, some with multiple stories and security gates.
On Sunday, July 11, after four days of watching television footage of shopping centers in other places being overrun by looters, and the police nowhere to be found, many Phoenix residents saw an anonymous, unverified message pop into their WhatsApp group chats.
“Tomorrow we coming in all your Indian people town to close everything,” it read. “You will wake up and see flames.”
Residents began to brace for an attack. Some debated how much resistance to mount.
“Why provoke a war between races by assembling civilians in numbers to disburse looters when our families are not in threat?” one Phoenix resident wrote in a community WhatsApp group on Monday morning.
Later that morning, though, videos and messages left many feeling that their city was being overrun. One video showed hundreds of people charging into Phoenix from a predominantly Black settlement. A crowd at the border of Phoenix and another mostly Black settlement began throwing rocks at homes in Phoenix, shattering windows, residents said. Gunshots rang out as looters made their way toward a shopping plaza, said Marc Chetty, a resident. A bullet tore through the kitchen window of Chandramati Bhagwati, 66, grazing her as she cooked a pot of rice, she said. Two shopping plazas were overrun by looters and destroyed.
Residents flocked to the streets to erect makeshift roadblocks. Many armed themselves with guns, bats, golf clubs and field hockey sticks, stopping virtually any Black person driving through. Phoenix residents argued they were not accosting Black people because of their race, but because they seemed to be doing most of the looting.
“So if we are stopping somebody, we’re not going to stop the Indians,” said Loven Karim, a community activist in Phoenix who is Indian. “We’re going to question the Africans.”
Ganesh Naidoo, a 61-year-old fruit vendor, was among a group of Indian men guarding a roadblock. He was fatally shot when a car with Black passengers opened fire, witnesses said. “The Indians are retaliating, to protect themselves,” said his son, Daryl Naidoo.
All around Phoenix, Indian residents asked how anyone could say this was about race.
Indian residents said that while the government failed to create opportunities for their Black neighbors, they employed them as gardeners and housekeepers. They pointed to all the Black people walking the streets in Phoenix and patronizing the shops. Both Black and Indian residents of the area said that they largely got along well. Besides, Indian residents said that they, too, have faced discrimination.
Dozens of Indians were killed in rioting in Durban in 1949. During another outbreak of violence in 1985, Black rioters squared off against white police officers and Indian vigilantes armed with shotguns and pistols. Hundreds of Indian-owned businesses and homes were destroyed, and families displaced.
“We’ve been through it as well,” said Zunaid Mahomed, 40, a regional manager with Toyota living in Phoenix. “We didn’t go out there and take what’s not ours. We worked and we built. And that is why we are protecting what we worked and we built.”
Still, Phoenix’s Indian residents openly discussed their anxieties about Black people. Mr. Karim, the community activist, described some as drug addicts — “sugar boys,” he called them — who roam their streets and commit robberies.