Indian vs. Black: vigilante killings upend a South African town

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 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. Dlamini barely made it across the street. He later died of his injuries at the hospital, his family said.

South Africa was convulsed this summer 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 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.

“Most of the people who died were innocent people who were traveling,” said Sihle Zikalala, the premier of KwaZulu-Natal province, where Phoenix is.

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.

“We need to confront racism in our society,” Ramaphosa wrote in a letter to the nation, specifically addressing the Phoenix unrest. “We need to have honest conversations not only about our attitudes to one another but also about the material conditions that divide us.”

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.

Philani Chagi, a brickmaker who said he was attacked by a mob while traveling through Phoenix, South Africa, at his home in Amaoti, South Africa, July 21, 2021. (Joao Silva/The New York Times)

Witnesses said the police left two Black men who were badly beaten on the side of the road in Phoenix, where they later died. Likewise, Philani Chagi, a brickmaker who is Black, said that a police officer escorting him through Phoenix disappeared once a mob began to attack him, leaving him with open wounds on his arms, chest and head.

“It feels like our protectors turned their backs on us and threw us away,” he said.

Arming Up

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 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.

More often than not, though, the attacks by Indian residents had little to do with self-defense, the police said.

A Blockade, Then a Beating

The minibus taxi carrying Dlamini and five of his friends rounded a corner in Phoenix and encountered one of the blockades. Dozens of Indian men, many of them armed, ordered them to stop.

The friends came from a neighboring Black township. Linda Khawula, who was with the group, said they had previously used the taxi, owned by Dlamini’s family, to drop off groceries, alcohol and school uniforms that some of them had looted from stores in other communities. Then they cruised around a bit and drank, she said, before deciding to go to Phoenix to find gas, which had been in short supply in many neighborhoods because of the riots.

When they saw the roadblock, she said, they made a quick decision: speed through it.

People dove out of the way, and someone shattered the rear window with a rock, she said. But they drove on, eventually stopping in front of a tavern called T’s Action Bar to collect themselves, thinking that they had escaped the mob.

T’s Action Bar in Phoenix, South Africa, where a mob attacked a group of friends in a taxi, resulting in one death, July 23, 2021. (Joao Silva/The New York Times

Security camera footage from the bar, which has not been released publicly but was obtained by the Times, shows the taxi idling for several minutes before being surrounded by other cars and an angry mob. The crowd forces the passengers to lie in the road and beats them.

“They have brown skin like us, so why would they do what they did to us?” said Khawula, 22.

The crowd briefly scattered when a man fired a handgun into the air, creating enough of a distraction for Khawula and another passenger to run to safety, she said.

Dlamini, a taxi driver and father of 11, was the only one killed. Others were badly wounded.

Sandile Sambo, Khawula’s boyfriend, said he fled after the shot went off, but a group of men chased him back toward the bar. A separate video shot by a bystander on his cellphone shows Sambo, 36, running down the middle of the street with a crowd in pursuit. A man swings a blue bat and delivers a cracking blow to the back of Sambo’s head. He goes limp and falls face down on the pavement, knocked unconscious before the police and civilians eventually took him to a hospital.

As deaths piled up in other attacks, a panic set in among the area’s Black residents. In search of their missing loved ones, they trudged through bushes and rivers, visited hospitals and stood in hourslong lines at the Phoenix mortuary. One man described looking for his brother in a morgue so packed he had to step over corpses.

“I don’t like how I feel since that happened to us, because now I have hate in my heart,” Khawula said. “I feel hate toward Indian people when I didn’t feel it before.”

Taking It ‘a Bit Far’

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. Karim, the community activist, described some as drug addicts — “sugar boys,” he called them — who roam their streets and commit robberies.

An Indian security guard for one of Phoenix’s major private security companies casually used an anti-Black slur when asking me, a Black reporter, if Black people in the United States “live like in the townships here.”

Even so, those attitudes were the furthest thing from Phoenix residents’ minds when they blockaded their streets, argued Shaheen Gopal, 49, who lives near T’s and said his brother owns the bar.

When I rang the intercom outside of his home, Gopal asked me if I had any weapons and told me to show my waistband to prove that I did not. He then invited me in.

Gopal initially contended that he was not around for the attack. Yet in the bystander video, he can be seen pacing amid the chaos with a pole in his hand. Confronted with the video, he acknowledged that he went outside when he heard the commotion but said he did not participate in the violence, which he called gruesome and unjustified.

“The ordinary man out there was just protecting himself,” he said. “But also the ordinary man did take it a bit far.”

Left for Dead

Even when the police and emergency workers saw the mobs descend on people, they sometimes failed to act. In at least one instance, that may have cost the lives of two men, Delani and Mlondi Khumalo, cousins who were as close as brothers.

On the Monday morning that Phoenix residents put their city into lockdown, the cousins told relatives in their township, KwaMashu, that they were off to find gas.

Family members grew worried as hours passed. Mlondi’s sister, Sizo Khumalo, said that the next morning, a man showed up at her house and told her he had been in the car with the cousins. They were stopped by a mob in Phoenix, he said, and pulled from the car at gunpoint. He managed to escape, but the cousins did not.

Later in the day, the family began seeing pictures and videos of their bodies, bloodied and seemingly lifeless, on social media.

One Indian homeowner in Phoenix, who spoke anonymously for fear of retribution, said that he saw the two men in the street long after the attack. They were still alive.

He flagged down two police cars, he said, both of which stopped briefly before speeding off. A third police vehicle stopped, called an ambulance and waited for it to arrive before leaving, he said.

But the ambulance, which belonged to a private company, treated the men only briefly before leaving them, still alive, on the side of the road, the resident said. A mortuary van came the next day to pick up them up. Their bodies had been burned, family members said.

One relative, Thulani Dube, said they did not deserve to be killed, even if they had been looting.

At the cousins’ funeral, in a tent set on a sprawling field of brown grass behind a family home in KwaMashu, loved ones cried and seethed but also thought about the bright times: Mlondi Khumalo, a 28-year-old father of two, had just celebrated his first wedding anniversary. Delani Khumalo, 41, a globe-trotting dance instructor, was preparing for a trip to Russia.

Still, they struggled to make sense of what happened — and what it meant for their country.

“I can’t sleep, thinking about what I saw inside the mortuary,” said Dube, who went to identify their bodies. “Sometimes, the smell fills my nostrils.”

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