Politicians blamed for stoking Phoenix protests
After an extended power outage, people took to the streets burning tyres
- After a 40-hour power outage in Phoenix over the weekend, angry residents took to the streets protesting and burning tyres.
- Political opportunism was blamed for stoking the protests.
- The ward councillor blames ageing and inadequate infrastructure for the power failure.
After a power outage that lasted 40 hours, from Friday to Monday morning, enraged residents and some business owners took to the streets in Phoenix, north of Durban. Tyres were burned and roads were closed. Traffic was disrupted and had to be diverted.
In video footage GroundUp has seen, a passenger recording the protest on Sunday night had his phone taken. When the passenger left the vehicle to retrieve his phone, he was mobbed, assaulted with sticks, and forced to flee.
The protests started on Sunday with about 80 people near the Eastbury grounds. By Monday morning, there were only about 20 protesters, gathered at Grove End.
The power outage was not the first but it was one of the longest endured by residents in recent months. There is also water rationing and there are problems with uncollected garbage.
Local community police forum (CPF) chairperson Umesh Singh said people were being manipulated by politicians stoking the discontent.
He said the power outage was caused by ageing infrastructure and protests weren’t going to fix a problem that required expertise and time.
He said community groups, such as the CPF, were seeking to assist the “broken” eThekwini Municipality.
Singh said it was a “low mentality” for people to destroy infrastructure they needed for daily survival just to get the municipality’s attention. He said Phoenix was still struggling from the damage to infrastructure done during the 2021 riots.
Ward 49 Councillor Tino Pillay (DA) said power had been restored to three wards by 1:30am on Monday, except for two roads in ward 48 that had additional faults.
He said the power outage over the weekend was not the result of load shedding, but of a cable malfunction, caused by load surges on the lines when the power was switched back on. At the same time, there was a second cable fault 50 metres away, and a third about five kilometres away. He said the process of joining replacement cables was easily a 20-hour job that included manually digging trenches, acquiring parts, and managing surges so that further breaks did not happen.
Pillay also blamed ageing infrastructure and the eThekwini municipality’s “broken system”, which included its supply chain management. He said everyone was aware that the government had not maintained or expanded the infrastructure as the population grew.
He, too, blamed political incitement for the protests. He said the protestors were misinformed.
On Sunday, a statement was issued by Inkatha Freedom Party councillor Jonathan Annipen on eThekwini municipal letterhead stating that staff members from the municipality had been removed from Phoenix because of threats to their safety.
Annipen said Maxwell Mthembu, head of eThekwini Municipality, told him a political party had made threats to harm municipal staff. Annipen refused to say who or which party.
The message was not well received by the DA and the Phoenix CPF, who said they had spoken to Mthembu and no staff member had been threatened or taken off site.
Members of the public also criticised Annipen for inflaming the situation.
Speaking to GroundUp on Tuesday, Annipen said that while he stood by his statement, he now viewed parts of it as “alarmist”, and he conceded that he only had hearsay evidence of political threats and he had not actually witnessed threats to municipal staff himself. He said the IFP would not support violent protests that damage property and infrastructure.
Singh said the CPF would have protected municipal staff while they worked had there in fact been any danger.
In a voice note on a private Phoenix WhatsApp group, calls to protest were made by an individual asking residents to join him in protesting against the eThekwini Municipality and the Democratic Alliance. The note claims that members of Action SA were both present and supportive of the protests.
But Action SA KwaZulu-Natal provincial chair Zwakele Mncwango said they knew nothing about the voice note and they did not condone violence. However, he said, “Protesting is a constitutional right that all South Africans enjoy. Unfortunately, our government [listens] to protest language before doing anything.”
Claims had been circulating on social media that thousands of rands worth of food had to be discarded as Durban temperatures reached above 30 degrees celsius during the outage. Community WhatsApp groups started to call on residents to protest.
A source at First Call Assist, who wished to remain anonymous, said the service was inundated with requests for assistance in Phoenix. He said some residents were dependent on ventilators, others on running their businesses from home, and the power outage was disastrous for them. However, fortunately no calls for medical assistance were received during the outage.
Meanwhile, Pillay said residents could claim for losses caused by the outage through the Sizakhala walk-in centre. He said for a successful claim one had to show receipts of purchase, and it would be best for claimants to visit the centre to receive help in person.
Phoenix has seen a burgeoning of development over the past decade, including blocks of flats that are privately built and let out for rent. Services are strained.
Pillay said the community could expect service interruptions for the foreseeable future and residents should consider alternative solutions like gas, solar and inverter systems.
GroundUp contacted Mthembu and also city manager Mbhele for comment on the claims made by Annipen, but they had not responded by the time of publication.
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