/ 18 May 2008

Mbeki acts as violence explodes

As a fresh wave of severe xenophobic violence gripped Johannesburg on Sunday, with five people killed in the Cleveland area, hundreds fleeing to the safety of police stations and shops in the CBD looted, President Thabo Mbeki announced that a panel had been set up to look into the attacks.

Speaking in Pretoria, African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma also condemned the attacks on foreigners, as Johannesburg metro police warned people to avoid dangerous CBD areas.

Five people were killed and 50 more were injured on Sunday when attacks spread to Cleveland and later to Jeppestown and surrounds, Johannesburg police said.

By Sunday evening, several shops in the CBD had been looted, Mail & Guardian reporters said, with burglar bars pulled down, doors smashed and merchandise stolen. There were also reports of foreigners being attacked as they stepped off trains at Park station.

Speaking at San Lameer after a meeting of the International Investment Council, Mbeki said it is important for police to act firmly. ”We hope that the panel and the police will work together and help us answer who is behind this.”

People cannot be allowed to go around beating up other people, Mbeki said.

In Pretoria, Zuma addressed a fully packed hall at the University of Pretoria’s Vista campus in Mamelodi.

”We cannot allow South Africa to be famous for xenophobia. We cannot be a xenophobic country,” he said, adding that he could not understand how people could attack foreigners when ANC members had sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

The address followed Zuma’s meeting with local stakeholders — including the Somali Association of South Africa — to address issues facing the community, including xenophobia.

He said community leaders had informed him that residents had identified those behind xenophobic attacks but that when the information was taken to the police, they did not act on it. ”We cannot have the police who are not active to deal with the issue because in no time this matter is going to take a different direction.”

Zuma said he had been told how people attacked others while singing his trademark song Umshini Wami. ”That is a serious matter, for that song belongs to the ANC, it doesn’t belong to unknown people. The question is: Who are those people who are misleading the public by singing an ANC song when they’re doing the wrong thing?”

Reflecting on the meeting, Somali Association of South Africa director Ahmed Dawlo said the meeting with Zuma was assuring.

”It was assuring our faith in the South African government . It used to be a form of denial … the scourge of xenophobia in South Africa. But hearing from Zuma, it seems like government has realised the challenge,” he said.

‘Unsettled’ CBD

After a visit to Johannesburg’s central business district on Sunday, Gauteng Democratic Alliance leader Jack Bloom warned the situation there was ”unsettled”, adding: ”There were clashes at the Central Methodist church where many Zimbabweans have taken shelter.”

Metro police spokesperson Wayne Minnaar said on South African Broadcasting Corporation radio that motorists should avoid certain CBD areas.

In Hillbrow, there was a heavy police presence after residents pounced on foreigners selling goods on the streets, police spokesperson Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said.

Hundreds of frightened foreigners fled to the sanctity of the Jeppe police station in central Johannesburg on Sunday morning.

The atmosphere at the police station was tense, with M&G journalists reporting helicopters circling overhead and large numbers of heavily armed police officers decked out in riot gear. City residents looked on from nearby rooftops as groups of refugees, many of them women and children, continued to arrive.

Station commander Director Danie Louw said: ”It [the violence in the area] started this morning when a large number of foreign nationals started coming to the police station to seek assistance. Women and children have been held in a separate shelter, but about 300 men are being kept in the back [an area behind the station.”

Much of the unrest had originated from Denver, George Goch and Wolhuter hostels, he said.

Police had earlier come under fire from a large crowd and retaliated by shooting rubber bullets. One person was arrested for being in possession of an unlicensed machine gun, and a further seven were detained for looting.

At the Jeppe station, an M&G reporter overheard a police officer speaking into his radio: ”Chief, they are running a war here.”

The Cleveland violence had started at about 1am on Sunday, police spokesperson Captain Cheryl Engelbrecht said. Foreigners, mainly Zimbabweans, were attacked at the Cleveland informal settlement.

”Two people were burnt and three people were beaten to death. Fifty others were taken to various hospitals for gunshot and stab wounds,” said Engelbrecht.

Cleveland is a suburb on the main railway route to the East Rand, and is situated near the crossing of the N3 highway to Durban and the busy M2 elevated freeway to the inner city.

People lined Jules Street on Sunday afternoon, ululating as vans carrying goods for foreign nationals passed through, a South African Press Association journalist reported from the scene. There had also been reports of cars being torched.

Call for debate

Bloom said that on Monday he would request the speaker of the Gauteng legislature to call a snap debate ”on the spreading wave of xenophobic attacks in the province”.

”This clearly has the potential to get out of hand as the violence in Alexandra has been followed by attacks on foreigners in Diepsloot, Ivory Park and various parts of the East Rand, including Thokoza, Tembisa and Primrose.”

This is a law-and-order issue in the first instance, ”but we also need to see a proper plan by the provincial government to rectify underlying grievances”, said Bloom. ”The response of the authorities so far has been slow and inadequate. The murders, rapes, assaults and thefts need to be stopped with decisive force, backed up by the army if necessary.”

He said that about 1 000 foreigners had sought refuge at the Cleveland police station, with more coming in. ”The Red Cross are doing their best but there is a desperate need for food aid,” Bloom said.

”Jules Street in Malvern is being patrolled by police vehicles to prevent the looting that broke out there after attacks on foreigners emanating from the Denver hostel,” he added. ”Last night [Sunday night], police came under fire from hostel residents, including shots from AK-47s. At least six murders are confirmed in the area, and many more injuries.”

Spreading violence

The violent attacks on foreigners started in Alexandra and by Saturday had spread from Alexandra to Diepsloot, Thokoza and Tembisa.

About 300 foreigners had flocked to the Thokoza community hall on Saturday, seeking safety after attacks broke out in the East Rand township. Seven people were arrested for public violence on Saturday in Thokoza, where two shacks had been burnt down and a number of people had been injured, according to police.

In Tembisa, one man was shot and killed and two others were injured, also in xenophobic attacks.

Spokesperson Captain Manyadza Ralidhivha said scores of Tembisa residents went on a rampage on Saturday, destroying property that belonged to foreign nationals. At least 15 shacks had been burnt down in Kanana, Tembisa.

Meanwhile, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) said on Sunday that the xenophobic attacks leaving thousands of foreigners destitute now amount to a humanitarian crisis.

Spokesperson Dr Eric Goemaere said: ”I have been to many refugee camps and situations and this definitely is along those lines.”

He said other countries have a refugee definition and people are protected and granted assistance, whereas in South Africa they are staying in police stations. There is a need for the government to accord the foreigners ”some kind of status”.

MSF has a presence in Alexandra and Diepsloot and has visited Jeppe, parts of the East Rand and the Central Methodist church in the Johannesburg CBD.

”This reminds me of a refugee situation. I have treated bullet wounds, beaten people, rape victims, and the people are terrified,” Goemaere said.

He said the police appeared to be overwhelmed by the attacks.