OPINION: South African black lives matter: the Phoenix violence & its aftermath
This opinion piece was co-authored by Wandile Mthiyane and Kristin Brig-Ortiz.
One of my favourite party tricks is hearing my friends chuckle from listening to how, growing up, I was too poor to receive racism from white people. Post-apartheid euphoria led my parents to enroll me in a better school than they experienced, which meant an Indian school. White schools were too expensive, and African schools were poorly built, underfunded and understaffed, a purposeful move to keep the South African school system segregated. Finance replaces skin colour as a barrier of entry, which in South Africa is directly tied back to skin colour. Indian schools were the next best option. I was particularly excited because unlike the schools in my community of KwaMashu, Phoenix’s schools had soccer grounds with green grass and nets on the goal posts.
But racism lurked everywhere in my Indian school. My first memory of school-based racism happened when an Indian kid was slapped on the wrist while I was hit on the back with a glass ruler, even though we were both calling each other “fatty boom boom”. After that incident, my brothers and sisters attending the same school warned me about the racial discrimination from the “deputy white people,” or anti-black Indians I would experience and how to deal with it. Not everyone was like this, but there existed a significant portion that were. I didn’t know much about racism at age 6, but I knew two things.
First, racism did exist, and it was violent. Second, my parents would never punish me to that degree. I wish I could say that was all. However, it only grew worse as I stayed in Phoenix’s schools. I made friends, and the next day I would lose them because my friends were told by their parents not to play with black people. I also had a teacher who told black students that they would amount to nothing, that they would just sell tomatoes on the side of the road, so they might as well leave school and get a head start by setting up the table now.
As a result, the Phoenix massacre didn’t come as a surprise to me. What instead surprised me was how long it took the world to recognise the racial tensions that exist in South African Indian and black communities. After chatting with Kristin, an American, about the July protests, we noted the stark differences between how black people versus non-black people were brutally treated, and the history behind that treatment. We are particularly fascinated by how there’s no refuge for black bodies; black people just cannot catch a break. Black people are treated as less than in Europe, America and other foreign lands. Yet, even on their native continent, their lives are still worth less than other races, as evidenced by the response and coverage of the Phoenix massacre.
While news outlets have focused on the damaged businesses in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), few have addressed the racial violence that took place under the guise of neighbourhood protection. Phoenix was a microcosm of a bigger issue. From South Africa’s colonial and apartheid roots, internalised racism has taught us to fear, and thus perform violence on, black bodies simply because they are black. Even the coverage is more focused on the fear of the “savage” black community’s retaliation rather than the black community’s trauma and Indian perpetrators in places like Phoenix and Verulam. The international Black Lives Matter movement has shown us the importance of recognising this racism for the violence that it enacts, teaching us to listen instead of judge, to upend society instead of keeping the status quo. We may have had a post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but what did it actually accomplish? Was it the wrong idea, or was it rather a good idea implemented the wrong way?
Racial violence is a historical attribute of South Africa, especially in Natal. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Natal’s British colonisers crafted a system that placed segregation at the heart of everyday life. The goal reminds one of how employers break up unionisation: divide populations of colour to promote violence between non-white races, deflecting anger from, and thereby upholding, white superiority. Since Africans were the colony’s majority, they were the largest threat to British control. The British were more lenient with the smaller but rapidly-growing Indian population, implementing specific regulations to keep Indians from establishing competing political and cultural capital with white residents while allowing Indians more space to establish businesses and labour patterns perceived as crucial to the colonial economy. This move gave Indian residents an economic head-start that allowed them to accrue more wealth than black people over time, even during apartheid.
These patterns have remained in place into the present day. In 2017, the total South African population was approximately 56,521,900. Of these, 45,656,400 were black African; 4,962,900 coloured; 1,409,100 Indian/Asian; and 4,493,500 white. According to a recent report from the Commission for Employment Equity, about 67.7% of upper management positions employed white people, while only about 14% employed black people. Furthermore, less than half of all South African businesses are black-owned. Finally, white people owned 73% of the country’s land, with coloured and Indian landholders at a combined 20%, and Africans at just 4%. Black Africans are thus the country’s majority, but hold the least business and land capital. This has given South Africa the largest wealth disparity in the world, inevitably leading to such unrest as occurred in mid-July.
In light of these facts, it makes sense that the protesters’ anger was directed at stores, not people. Few, if any, had guns; they looted businesses, not private residences; and they blocked highways without significant surges in car jackings or other kinds of personal vehicle crime. The gun shots we heard in Durban were not from protesters but rather from neighbourhood vigilantes, the SAPS, and the SANDF (when they finally showed up). The media often shows the protesters as vicious rioters and frames the neighbourhood vigilante groups as the heroes. Coupled with South Africa’s structural racism, this binary portrayal helped incite racial violence against black bodies, particularly in and around Durban.
The Phoenix massacre exposes just how true this situation was, and the deep levels of racism that powered Indian-on-black violence. Indian perpetrators indiscriminately shot, burned, stabbed, and used cars to run over black victims. Today, we know for certain that approximately 37 black people died from these attacks, while still more deaths are being investigated. Most of those people were not part of the looting - they were families trying to get home, or drivers looking for open petrol stations. They were killed simply because they were black. And because the victims were black, the murderers could claim they were looters, and therefore defending the neighbourhood.
Despite their supposedly anti-racist views, the local and national governments have remained silent on the massacre. In fact, they have refused to call it a massacre. The only government official who has used the term is KZN’s Social Development MEP, Nonhlanhla Khoza, who told her party to name the “brutal killing of many people” for what it was - a massacre. Had 37 white or even Indian people been killed, the government would have used “massacre” with little hesitation. Yet because those murdered were black, their lives were not worth enough to call the killing spree a massacre. Additionally, the Democratic Alliance and Freedom Front Plus have claimed that the massacre was not racially-motivated, when the brutal evidence clearly shows the opposite. When one white farmer is killed, they cry “white genocide.” When dozens of black people are killed, they claim colourblindness, reinforcing existing notions that permit violence on black bodies to continue.
South Africa is not unique in this situation. In the United States, I (Kristin) regularly hear about and witness racial violence against non-white, and particularly black, populations. While many white Americans deny racism still exists, my non-white friends face discrimination on the streets, in the airports, applying for jobs, shopping in stores, and elsewhere. Above all, police brutality is a general threat to black lives, whatever socioeconomic class from which they come.
One Harvard study showed that black people are “more than three times as likely as white people to be killed during a police encounter.” Furthermore, hate crimes against non-white persons are higher than they have been in over ten years. My own university, Johns Hopkins, is one of many institutions implementing a private police force to protect a limited number of people on campus.
Yes, Black Lives Matter and its allies continue to call for defunding the police and better funding of crucial social services. Yes, people are more broadly recognising the US’s inequitable wealth distribution. But the police continue to terrorise black communities, and wealth inequality has skyrocketed since the pandemic began in 2020.
While former President Donald Trump actively fueled and promoted racial crimes in the US, a silent government as we see in the ANC also carries blame for racial violence. In his 25 July COVID address, President Ramaphosa called multiple times for “law and order,” a throwback to apartheid speeches against non-white communities. On the ground, police are invading black homes in townships demanding the return of stolen goods based on the fallacious presumption that all black township residents participated in the looting. And claims of ethnic mobilisation have obscured the true issues behind the protests.
While we do not have all the solutions, we have a few ideas. Regarding Phoenix itself, the government needs to provide financial and therapeutic compensation. It needs to call the event what it was: a massacre. As black parents are now afraid to send their children to Indian schools, teachers and other instructors need to undergo diversity, equity, and inclusion training. Without a sense of closure, black people still fear for their lives in Phoenix, and the community’s divisions will only grow.
Yet as we have shown, Phoenix’s microcosm is a symptom of a broader problem in South Africa. There are three primary areas that create structural inequality: education, the economy, and the media. In education, the government needs to better fund African schools to give students a more equal footing with white and Indian groups in society. Students also need a phone app allowing them to report racial violence in an anonymised space, in line with similar suggestions. In the economy, the government must enforce its proclaimed labour protections for non-unionised workers who are underpaid and undergo physical and racial abuse. Finally, in the media, we have to end racism and how it drives mass fear of black people. If we continue to allow misinformation to spread, divisions will only increase, and more black people will die.
My teacher was wrong about me, because I have a master’s in architecture and am an Obama leader. But she was right overall: South African education is set up for black people to fail. As a collective action, we need to start buying black and personally investing in the black community. We have to be the change we want to see.
Wandile Mthiyane is a political analyst, adjunct professor and an architect who holds a master’s in architecture from Andrews University in the US. He is an Obama Foundation Leader, Resolution Fellow, and the CEO of social impact architecture firm, Ubuntu Design Group, The Anti-Racist Hotdog and Ubuntu Architecture Summer Abroad Design Justice school. Follow him on Twitter: @wandileubuntu
Kristin Brig-Ortiz is a PhD candidate in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the US. She is currently in Durban performing research on the history of water management in South African port cities. Follow her on Twitter: @PoxyGraduate