The SAHRC’s Phoenix charade

William Saunderson-Meyer says the inquiry lacks credibility and is agenda driven


A feminist, a minister, and a recycled politician walk into a room. 

“Give us three million bucks and three weeks, and we’ll tell you why at least 359 people died, R50bn of property was damaged and 150,000 jobs were put at risk.” 

No, this is not a riff on an old joke. And risible though it may seem, it’s a reality. 

The SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), a fully-owned subsidiary of ANC (Pty) Ltd, has been delegated by Cyril Ramaphosa, CEO of the aforesaid, to determine the cause of the July public violence that wracked KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng. 

There are three commissioners, no investigatory staff, but, already obvious, a clear agenda.

The feminist is Philile Ntuli. She has two higher degrees in gender studies and her biography states “My life’s work focuses on women’s relationship with the state”. She is particularly interested in exploring how/whether “South Africa’s project of democratisation can disrupt historical (sic) gendered hierarchies”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The minister is the Reverend Chris Nissen, ordained in the United Presbyterian Church and a part-time commissioner. Nissen is a lifelong ANC activist. He served in the Western Cape provincial government as the ANC's MEC for Economic Affairs and then as Deputy Speaker until 1999.

Nissen was the SAHRC’s point-man in last year’s five-month-long occupation of Cape Town’s Central Methodist Church by around 900 Congolese illegal immigrants. Or migrant victims of South African xenophobia who had mislaid their official documents, if you prefer.

The church had initially allowed them sanctuary but when they outstayed their welcome, Nissen was sent to negotiate a new home. This went awry when the group accused the SAHRC of reneging on promises to arrange refugee passage to Canada and physically attacked him and other church leaders.

The recycled politician is the head of the triumvirate, advocate Andre Gaum. For 14 years he was an ANC MP, during which period he served briefly as Deputy Minister of Education in former president Zuma’s cabinet.

The inquiry’s stated objectives are revealing. The first aim of this hopelessly underpowered team is to establish the causes of the unrest. Also, to determine the cause of the racially motivated attacks, the cause of any lapses in law enforcement, and the “role played by social, economic, spatial and political factors”. 

Just in case you haven’t yet latched onto which pre-ordained direction of scapegoating this is going, Gaum is frank. The focus,” Gaum told the media, “is on the numerous incidents of race violence.”

The entire charade is classic Ramaphosa sleight of hand. Instead of a fully-fledged judicial inquiry — such as that headed by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo into state capture, which has taken three years and cost almost R1bn — Ramaphosa hopes to distract attention from the real causes of the riots by examining a single microcosm. Much safer than a judicial inquiry is to deploy the party’s lackeys at the SAHRC.

There is good reason for Ramaphosa’s move. To dig deeply and evenhandedly into the entire equation, instead of just this particular subset, would be to risk an ANC political implosion.

There is plenty of evidence that the riots started when Ramaphosa, after years of trying to avoid the scenario, allowed the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma for an effective eight months on a contempt of court charge. In response, members of Zuma’s Radical Economic Transformation faction openly promoted sedition on social media and all hell broke loose. 

Ramaphosa initially described this as “an attempted insurrection” organised by a party cabal. The ANC announced that it had evidence fingering as chief instigators, a dozen senior party members. Then it dawned on Ramaphosa that he was over a barrel. To continue along this road would be to split the party and likely end his presidency in an early recall.

The back-peddling has been total. To date, none of the ANC “instigators” has been arrested. Zuma, who spent not a night in a cell, has been freed on mysterious medical grounds.

Instead, all the ANC’s investigatory zeal has been diverted to a single set of events in the Phoenix area outside Durban, where 33 alleged looters (black) were allegedly murdered by vigilantes (Indian). While the July deaths were undoubtedly horrific — witnesses have vividly recounted being attacked because of their race — there’s no great mystery to unravel here.

Aside from the obvious immediate threat that Phoenix residents faced during four days of mob rampages, during which the police were conspicuosly absent, there were at least two other good reasons to be worried. 

In 1949, Phoenix was attacked by its black neighbours. Over six days of fighting, 142 people died and more than a thousand were injured. Almost 300 homes were destroyed and a thousand more badly damaged. Tens of thousands of Indians fled for their lives.

In 1985, the settlement established by Mahatma Gandhi at Phoenix in 1904 was burnt to the ground in a similar attack. Scores of Indian shops were looted and burnt to the ground, and 500 Indian families were forced to flee.

It is laudatory to seek to unravel the many social, political and economic roots of South Africa’s perpetually violent society. But this is not SAHRC’s intention here. Albeit bloody and tragic, the Phoenix inquiry is a political sideshow that allows the government to advance two agendas: the pernicious prevalence of racism among minority groups and the ANC’s intention to limit drastically citizen firearm ownership.

Police Minister Bheki Cele, who displayed stunning indifference to what happened with tenfold intensity elsewhere during the violence, focused massive investigatory resources on Phoenix. Despite all the effort, only three men have been arrested and held, without bail, for a single alleged murder.

The other target has been the security companies. A Phoenix company, which accuses Cele of naming “innocent people” as being involved in the violence, had its entire armoury seized as part of the 152 security company guns taken for ballistic analysis. Despite no matches being found, it has cost two High Court applications to compel the police to return the firearms.

Although Gaum stressed that the inquiry would be an “inquisitorial not prosecutorial” process, the tone at times suggests otherwise. The first witness, Sham Maharaj, an old anti-apartheid activist now involved in a Phoenix peace group that seeks to reconcile the two communities, was harried mercilessly because he declined to describe the killings as a “massacre”.

Since the deaths did not take place in a single event, Maharaj is grammatically correct. But the SAHRC has a pre-ordained narrative that it is stitching together and, come or hell water, it’s determinedly doing so.

To discover the truth behind the 33 tragic deaths in Phoenix — as well as the 326 that occurred elsewhere — cannot be accomplished by a cadre-dominated SAHRC. It is, for example, not believable that Gaum, a former Cabinet colleague of Cele and Ramaphosa, will now call them properly to account when they testify, as they intend to do.

And, following the Phoenix inquiry, will SAHRC will be getting around to the other 326 deaths? If not, this is more than just another ANC stitch-up. It is outrageous and, of itself, racist. 

The SAHRC is a political tool and a bad joke.

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