South African town tries to heal after fake news stokes racial tensions

Rumours of a 'massacre' stoked strife in the town of Phoenix

As South Africa reels from a week of riots that killed at least 337 people, injured dozens and caused billions of dollars of damage to two of the country’s major cities, one town is battling misinformation and ethnic tension as it cleans up.

Dozens of residents of Phoenix, a town in the eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, have lost relatives in South Africa’s worst unrest since the end of apartheid, as rumours of violence and mass murders ran unchallenged through WhatsApp groups and social media.

Thirty-six people have been confirmed dead there since the violence started, Police Minister Bheki Cele said last week.

"What happened in Phoenix were criminal acts of the worst type, which also took a racial turn,” Mr Cele said.

He told The National that among the dead were three Indian South Africans and 33 black South Africans.

Of the arrested, “three or four” were black and the rest were Indian, Mr Cele said.

The South African army was sent to quell the unrest but it was over a week before they arrived in the town, which is about 24 kilometres north-west of Durban.

Community members and private security companies had to step in to protect businesses.

Armed vigilantes played a part, but some took a criminal approach to “protection” and deliberately confronted alleged looters and innocent citizens, sometimes violently.

Mr Cele said that the public perception of the violence had been worsened by misinformation.

About 85 per cent of Phoenix’s population is of Indian or Asian descent, the most recent census data shows.

In mid-July, after the worst unrest, an unsubstantiated tale of “a massacre” involving between 350 and 500 black people in the town, said to be perpetrated by residents of Indian descent, began trending on Twitter.

Under the hashtag #PhoenixMassacre, gruesome videos and images spread around social media, many of them fake or out of context.

The false story of a mass murder seemed to be born out of single-source reporting from some media organisations.

One quoted a National Funeral Practitioners Association of South Africa official, saying there were 500 bodies at the Phoenix state morgue, stirring racial tension.

The province's Member of the Executive Council for Health, Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu, on July 21 dispelled the reports when she visited the mortuary.

Ms Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu said the mortuary was processing the remains of 128 people who were not necessarily all linked to the unrest.

The morgue has also been holding cadavers from the surrounding area, as many of the mortuaries were shut amid the violence.

The police have also arrested several suspects in connection with the misinformation, which included social media posts claiming that the fatal shooting of an Indian man was linked to murders in Phoenix. Police said that was false.

Samier Singh, a Democratic Alliance Councillor in Phoenix, told The National he believed fake voice notes on WhatsApp and manipulated videos depicting local violence fanned tension.

He said they were probably orchestrated by supporters of former president Jacob Zuma, who was sentenced to jail for contempt.

“It's been planned to make the communities not only in Phoenix, but in KZN live in fear because there's a lot of fake voice notes announcing that there's one or two busloads of people coming for certain community members to hit and assault them," Mr Singh said.

"Where was the evidence to show that it happened?”

The initial lack of police and army presence in Phoenix also has people on edge.

Chris Biyela, the convener of a Phoenix peace committee formed after the unrest, told The National that if the government had acted more quickly, many lives would have been saved.

“Black people are still mostly not accepting of the Indian community," Mr Biyela said. "They are still angry with them. There are no terms of agreement to calm down the tensions as yet.

“It's because the Indian community are still in denial that they did wrong. They are still defending those who killed people."

Mr Biyela said his committee was planning the reconciliation process, and that the human rights commission, arts and cultural sectors in Phoenix and local churches would work together to hold community events to build a bridge between communities.

The South African Police Service has arrested 31 suspects in connection with the unrest, Mr Cele said on August 8.

Hundreds of firearms have been seized from private security companies working in the area, and from citizens.

The national police are investigating cases of attempted murder and assault, while the federal government is increasing police and army visibility in the town, and providing relief to those worst affected.

Some suspects have already been to court. Mr Biyela said that many of the others will face trial this week.

But deep rifts remain and many of Phoenix’s bereaved are no closer to justice.

Happy Mbambo was shocked after finding the body of her brother Thembenani in the Phoenix morgue after he was killed in the violence on July 12. He had been shot in the chest twice.

Ms Mbambo and her family are still in the dark as to what happened on the night of Thembenani’s death.

“Nobody wants to speak to us about him, even his friends," she told The National. "We keep on searching but nobody wants to tell us who shot him.

"Maybe they're scared or don't want to be involved, or maybe they don't know at all."

Updated: August 13th 2021, 4:00 AM