Phoenix: Fake news, mobs & historic inequalities a cocktail for racial anarchy

While many parts of KZN have suffered untold damage, the spotlight quickly moved to Phoenix earlier this week when word and images of residents carrying various weapons and setting up roadblocks to stop looters quickly surfaced on social media.

Police Minister Bheki Cele accompanies SAPS officials in Durban as they apprehend looters at warehouses near the N2. Picture: Lirandzu Themba.

JOHANNESBURG - South Africans and the world have watched in horror as what began as just riots, turned into looting, destruction of infrastructure and a vigilante mob fightback campaign spurred by racial division in Phoenix, KwaZulu-Natal.

While many parts of the city and the province at large have suffered untold damage to infrastructure and properties, the spotlight quickly moved to the predominantly Indian township earlier this week when word and images of residents carrying various weapons and setting up roadblocks to stop looters quickly surfaced on social media.

Twenty people have been killed in Phoenix since the start of violence there last week as a result, purported to be between Indian and African people in the area.

Nazareen Ebrahim, a resident of the area, spoke to 702’s Mandy Wiener to give an account of what’s happened so far.

“What’s been happening since Sunday, that escalated greatly and everyone has seen across the world, started in Cornubia, which is across the road from us. Three factories were burnt, the LG factory was looted and that just escalated into [Queen] Nandi Drive, where the main distribution warehouses are, particularly Massmart.

“That then resulted in more of the looters coming over or spilling over from the Cornubia area into Phoenix, because we border that particular area.

“It is thought that many of them were given directives to target Indian areas, malls, wanting to come into our area - particularly the Phoenix Plaza - to loot that and destroy. There were a few shops here that were targeted. We have news of petrol garages that tried to be burnt down and looted and there have been many incidents like that."

She described the past few days as very tense, with civilians taking up the responsibility of being guards. She added there were barricades everywhere made with sticks, boards – everything that people could lay their hands on.

“We heard news that cars with no number plates, tinted windows are coming in, checking out the areas and going out. However, there’s also lots of fake news going out and unnecessary panic being caused. Right now, it’s quiet, it’s okay," she said.

Social media has been flooded with images, videos and voicenotes depicting racial violence, but none of them have been verified. Tensions have been heightened between African, Indian and white people. #PhoenixMassacre also trended on Twitter, tagged to posts on the matter. Durban has seen an acute shortage of petrol and barricades set up by various community members, making it difficult for even the media to enter.

When asked about the racial element to the chaos, she says, due to apartheid spatial planning and the Group Areas Act, Phoenix is surrounded by mostly African townships and this historical background has fuelled what has escalated this week.

“There are very small groups of people, both in Phoenix and surrounding black townships and communities, that have decided to use violence as a response to one another. This has resulted, unfortunately in severe violence."

She said tensions were also being stoked by paranoia and fake news.

In the aftermath of looting, panic buying has gripped the community, much like other areas across Durban.

“This morning, I was waiting in the queue from about 6:45am. We finally got out of our local shop at 11:30am with some goods."

Meanwhile, Police Minister Bheki Cele arrived in the Kwazulu-Natal province on Wednesday and headed to Phoenix, where he received a report on the latest violence and looting that has engulfed the community.

He noted that racial tensions have marred the unrests and are characterising the community efforts to protect their neighbourhoods from looting.

“While the situation is not ideal at all and there are ugly scenes playing out on the streets of Phoenix, the racial direction that these unrests are taking must be arrested speedily,” Cele commented.

Cele also said that, now that the SANDF was on the ground to assist the police while they restored law and order, he was confident that safety in the community will be improved.

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