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Nicole Johnston, Percy Zvomuya18 May 2008 17:20
Downtown Johannesburg is a wasteland this Sunday.
Marshall Street is criss-crossed with makeshift barricades of rusty barbed wire, tyres and chunks of concrete.
In Main Street, shops have been literally disembowelled, their heavy-duty Jozi iron shutters wrenched off and their interiors cleaned out, stripped of every Pringle jumper and pair of Converse sneakers.
Police officers in bulletproof vests, with shotguns slung over their shoulders, stand guard at intersections, firing warning shots over the heads of would-be looters.
Helicopters clatter above us constantly and sirens and alarms wail all day.
We catch a ride in a police vehicle and, duly outfitted in bulletproof vests, tag along with Constable Meshack Sebiloane and Inspector Klaas Moloi as they escort a Zimbabwean man to his shop to remove his stock.
The pavements of Jules Street are thronged with knots of men, many of whom are drunk and carry sticks which they drop hurriedly when they see the cops approaching. The officers stand guard, rifles at the ready, as the family pack up their stock and household goods. Their landlady is disgusted: “If they are forced to move out, no one else must try to come in here. I refuse to rent it to anyone else—let it stand empty.”
Sylvia Khumalo (63) sits on a bench on the other side of the road, watching in disbelief. “This is just terrible, we don’t understand what is going on,” she says, and the other old women on the bench murmur their agreement. “I don’t like it—I am a human being, they are also like me.”
Not everyone shares her compassion. A group of young women passes by and they laugh scornfully: “Abahambe. Manje sizohlala emarumini abo mahala. [Let them go. We will live in their rooms for free.]”
Compassion has been in short supply in Jo’burg these past few days as mobs go door to door, burning and beating, stealing everything from beds to mealie-meal. The Jeppe police station has become the only safe spot in the neighbourhood, and there is a constant influx of refuges from the terror, streaming through its doors.
“How can they take clothes from a baby?” asks Admire Makhili (24), pointing to his 16-month-old baby who is barefoot and bareheaded. They have been in the open courtyard of the station since 4am on Sunday morning.
Nomsa Sibanda tells how she heard the looters outside her window, talking about who would get to keep the satellite dish from the Radium Hotel where she lives. The hotel is mostly occupied by foreigners.
“Since Zuma won the ANC presidency, they think they own South Africa. If they meet someone in the street and that person can’t answer questions in isiZulu, they insult them and beat them,” she says.
It’s a story we are to hear over and over again—and not just from foreigners. South Africans who speak Shangaan, Venda and Pedi report being attacked and told to go back to Limpopo.
Johannes Mkhabela (21) is a Mopedi from Pretoria but was driven from his shack near Jules Street on Sunday morning, leaving behind his worldly possessions, his life savings and his wife.
When he sees us getting into the police van, he rushes to the window and begs: “Please, please come with me to my house. I don’t know if my wife is alive or dead. I had R700 and they took it, and took my phone. Please help me.” It’s a heartbreaking plea, one that is echoed over and over throughout the day.
Surprisingly the police, who have more than enough on their plates with the war zone outside, respond with kindness and patience. Captain Jan Skosana explains over and over again to a weeping young woman that it’s not safe for her to go out into the conflict, that she’ll have to wait for the situation to calm down.
“Tomorrow,” he promises, “maybe tomorrow it will be better.”
Read more from Nicole Johnston
Percy Zvomuya is a freelance writer and editor. He writes stories mostly about the arts and, occasionally, football. Read more from Percy Zvomuya
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