Hundreds of frightened foreigners fled to the sanctity of the Jeppe police station in central Johannesburg on Sunday morning following a night of deadly xenophobic violence that claimed at least five lives and left about 50 people injured.
The atmosphere at the police station was tense, with 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.
Smashed and vandalised vehicles had been brought into the police station’s courtyard.
Taxis were pulling up close to the station, playing loud music. Their passengers jumped out and waggled their behinds at those seeking safety, causing them to step back in fear.
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, a Mail & Guardian reporter overheard a police officer speaking into his radio: “Chief, they are running a war here.”
The South African Red Cross Society — which this week launched an emergency appeal for R1-million in support of victims of xenophobic attacks — was on the scene, as were representatives of the city council who refused to speak to the media.
Malawian national Mohammed Namgoma (23), who lives in Jeppestown not far from the police station, told the M&G that a mob had arrived at his residence on Saturday, armed with knives and other weapons.
“They broke into the house with stones. The stones were coming through the window. There were burglar bars near the top of the ceiling, so I pulled myself up so the stones would not hit me. I hung there for three hours,” he said, showing his blackened hands.
“They didn’t hurt me but other people’s heads are broken,” he said. “They stole my phone, blankets and money and they said the amakwerekwere [foreigners] must go home.”
Namgoma then went to the shop of his Ethiopian employer on the corner of Bree and Von Wielligh streets, where a mob later arrived and started stoning the store, causing him to flee once more. “It’s better to go home than to die,” he said.
Fleeing the mob
Nomsa Sibanda, of Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, has been employed in South Africa by a cleaning company since 1991.
She told the M&G that she had returned home on Sunday morning to the Radium Hotel in Jeppestown after working a night shift when she and other residents, among them Malawians, were warned that a mob was heading to the hotel. They could hear whistling and cheering from nearby hostels.
“We heard they wanted to chase us away and steal our things,” she said. “We ran to get to town. A guy felt so much pity for us running like that, he picked us up and gave us a lift to Fordsburg.”
Sibanda then went to the Jeppe police station to request an escort back to her home so she could collect her belongings. “Everything I own that is valuable is in that house,” she said.
She also said that not only foreigners were being targeted. “It’s Zulus doing this and doing it to their own people,” she said, adding that Pedis, Shangaans and other South Africans were told by mob members to “go home to Limpopo”.
Outside the Jeppe police station, a South African resident who identified herself as a Pedi told the M&G that a “mob of Zulus” came to her house in the area early on Sunday morning “and beat everyone up”. She was still looking for her brother. “I don’t know how this is going to end. They just take your things and they beat you up,” she said.
Said Sibanda: “They [the attackers] are not educated. They have only a little and they think we are here to take it away,” she said. “[Zimbabwean leader Robert] Mugabe will be so thrilled when he sees this … what should we do? We don’t have any place to run to.”
She added: “[The] 2010 [World Cup] is coming. Are people going to be safe? Visitors are also foreigners.”
Overnight, said police spokesperson Captain Cheryl Engelbrecht, violence had started at about 1am. 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. About 300 people are seeking refuge at the Cleveland police station and more are coming in,” she said on Sunday morning.
According to police, several shops were vandalised and goods were stolen.
Cleveland is a suburb on the main railway line to the East Rand and beyond, and is situated near the crossing of the N3 highway to Durban and the busy M2 elevated freeway to the inner city.
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, according to police spokesperson Captain Mega Ndobe.
He said two shacks had been burnt down and a number of people had been injured. At least 50 foreigners had sought refuge at the Thokoza police station.
In Tembisa, one man was shot and killed and two others were injured, also in xenophobic attacks.