The South African Police Service (SAPS) has made significant progress in dissecting the causes and effects of the recent wanton destruction of infrastructure and business lootings in KwaZulu-Natal, says Police Minister Bheki Cele.
The Minister revealed this while briefing the media on the law enforcement and social cohesion interventions in Phoenix following the chaotic scenes of two weeks ago.
Cele on Tuesday said the SAPS was making strides in bringing to book those who instigated the events that resulted in the death of 342 people in KZN and Gauteng.
He said the calamity in Phoenix was precipitated by “racist vigilantism, as communities sought to protect themselves and their properties from looters”.
During the unrest, Cele said Phoenix and surrounding areas “became the epicentre of heinous criminal and racist incidents, which resulted in brutal killings and injuries, horrendous damage to property and untold pain and trauma”.
“We want to assure the nation that the crimes committed in Phoenix or anywhere else in the country will not go unpunished,” the Minister said.
The wheels of the catastrophe were set in motion on 12 July when the Phoenix community set up blockades and patrolled the neighbourhood streets after the start of mass looting and unrest in Durban.
While initially armed checkpoints were set up at strategic access points, the situation rapidly deteriorated and soon, the streets became scenes of crime.
Cele said the problem was aggravated when some people operating the checkpoints turned to vigilantism, and started to racially profile people, denying them entry into the area.
“This amounted to unlawful discrimination and a restriction of movement for mainly African people.
“According to police reports, a vehicle (bakkie) with no registration plates, carrying looted items, was stopped and searched at one of the checkpoints.”
Cele said four male occupants of the bakkie fired shots at community members.
While four suspects fled into the bushes, four African males sustained gunshot wounds, with one of them dying on the scene.
Their vehicle was set alight.
The Minister said police believe this incident sparked a chain of stoning and burning of vehicles, as well as shootings, stabbings and assaults.
It is alleged that at the road closures in the area, some motorists were robbed and their cars ransacked.
“Irrespective of gender or age, some motorists were allegedly forcefully taken out of their motor vehicles and then assaulted with baseball bats, bricks and sticks.
“Some people were even butchered with bush knives and other sharp instruments. It is alleged that some people were shot and killed, and their vehicles were set alight,” Cele said.
Harrowing accounts of targets narrowly escaping death while trying to enter Phoenix to access clinics and the local pharmacy have been widely shared.
“I have also met with Phoenix community members, who have condemned these savage acts and many are coming forward with information that is assisting police investigations,” Cele said.
The reign of terror claimed the lives of 36 people, revealed the Minister. Of these, investigations show that 30 people died of gunshot wounds. Two were burnt to death; one was stabbed and another run over by a car. Two others died from the brutal injuries they sustained after being assaulted.
Cele said they were investigating 52 cases of attempted murder, and probing nine cases of common assault and 16 cases of assault GBH.
Cele said what happened in Phoenix were “criminal acts of the worst kind, which also took a racial turn”.
“These acts have no place in our society and the perpetrators will be arrested and prosecuted,” he said.
A team of 31 experienced detectives from national and provincial KZN were deployed to investigate, make arrests and attend court cases “to ensure justice prevails”.
To date, 22 suspects have been arrested.
The Minister said some of the suspects were allegedly connected to several murder, attempted murder, malicious damage to property, and defeating the ends of justice cases.
Investigations are also underway to determine the role of private security firms in the violence. The Private Security Industry Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) has seized 152 firearms from four private security companies working in the area. A further 112 illegal firearms have also been seized during police operations in Phoenix.
Investigating the authorities
Also under scrutiny will be the local SAPS response, said Cele.
The South African National Defence Force is providing support to the SAPS and its specialised units, such as Public Order Police, Tactical Response Teams (TRT) and Metro Police daily in the areas of Phoenix, Bhambayi, Zwelitsha and aMaoti.
Cele said: “I want to assure these families that the police will continue their relentless pursuit of the killers and their accomplices. We are committed to upholding the law and seeking justice”.