Police Minister Bheki Cele says the death toll in Phoenix has increased to 36 and 22 people have been arrested in connection to the murders in the area, north of Durban.
Cele revealed that 30 of the deceased persons were shot dead while the rest were either burnt to death, stabbed or succumbed to injuries they sustained.
“Two [people] were burnt to death. One was stabbed and another was run over by a motor vehicle. Two others died from the brutal injuries they sustained after being assaulted,” the Minister said during a media briefing on Tuesday.
Cele explained that community members in Phoenix had set up patrols in the neighbourhood’s streets after the rampant looting and violent unrest in parts of KwaZulu-Natal started.
“The problem started when some people operating the checkpoints turned to vigilantism and started racially profiling people, preventing them entry into the suburb,” he said.
The minister said the action taken by the Phoenix community members led “to unlawful discrimination, and restriction of movement for mainly Africans”.
“According to police reports, a bakkie with no registration plates, carrying looted items was stopped and searched at one of the checkpoints.
“Four male occupants of the bakkie fired shots at community members and the community returned fire. The four suspects fled into the bushes.
“The shootout resulted in four African males sustaining gunshot wounds, one of them died on the scene. Their vehicle was set alight.
“This incident, we believe sparked other incidents of stoning and burning of vehicles and further violence including shootings, stabbings and assaults,” Cele said.
He had previously claimed at first the violence in Phoenix had taken a “racial connotation”, but later backtracked on his remarks.
He further said police were investigating 52 cases of attempted murder and murder, nine cases of robbery and 16 cases of common assaults and grievous bodily harm (GBH), adding that arrests have been made.
“I want to be very clear about this: 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.
“A team of 31 experienced detectives from the province and national, have been deployed to investigate, make arrests and attend court cases to ensure justice prevails. Working closely with the communities, their investigations have led to the arrest of 22 suspects so far.”
Cele revealed that some of the suspects are allegedly connected to several murder cases while others face charges of attempted murder, malicious damage to property and defeating the ends of justice.
The minister added that police were also looking into the role of private security firms in the Phoenix killings.
He pointed out that 112 illegal firearms had also been seized during police operations in the area.
“The seizure of these firearms is within the ambit of Firearms Controls Act and the firearms have been sent for ballistic analysis.”
Cele said there were murders of innocent people during the unrest in Chatsworth, too, rather than only in Phoenix.
“We have heard of accounts of people being dragged from their vehicles while driving. Some died from gunshot wounds while others burned,” he added.