/ 19 May 2008

Gauteng reels under xenophobic attacks

As the sun set on another bloody day of xenophobic violence in Gauteng on Monday, at least 22 people were reported dead, many more injured and 217 arrested for fierce attacks on both foreigners and local residents living in the greater Johannesburg area.

The violence had started in Alexandra last week. By Monday it had spread to several other townships, as well as the Johannesburg CBD, as the South African Police Service dispatched experienced officers to the province and the National Intelligence Agency confirmed it was investigating the attacks.

Though many foreigners were targeted in mob attacks, causing thousands to flee their homes for the safety of community centres and police stations, South African citizens were also reportedly victimised, with, for example, Pedi and Shangaan people being told by Zulu antagonists to ”go back to Limpopo”.

”We will burn the Shangaans if they don’t go back,” were the chilling words of a 25-year-old man arrested for public violence in Ramaphosa on the East Rand on Monday as police deployed specialists to stop the xenophobic attacks.

”We will fight for this country. We will keep on going, they can’t stop us,” said the unemployed man, speaking to reporters through the bars of a holding cell at the Reiger Park police station.

He said he was proud of destroying a few shacks in the area. ”I will be proud to meet the man who started this,” he said, adding: ”Foreigners are taking our jobs and our wives.”

”Yes, we are investigating,” National Intelligence Agency spokesperson Lorna Daniels told the M&G on Monday afternoon. She declined to divulge further detail about the nature of the investigation or possible leads the agency is probing.

Mbeki on Sunday said the attacks should be investigated to ”see what lies behind it”.

”We are interested to find out what could have sparked it off, and maybe we could find out if a particular person instigated it,” he told the International Investment Council in Margate.

Deadly day

Earlier, police recovered the hacked body parts of a Malawian national on a sandy road in Ramaphosa township and, near Primrose, one person with Mozambican identification papers in his pocket was found dead. Two other Mozambicans were seriously beaten.

In Zamimpilo, outside Riverlea on the West Rand, at least 50 shacks were burned. Foreign nationals in the area were taken to safety at a community centre.

In Kya Sands, an industrial area close to informal settlements, groups of people began throwing stones at each other after a community meeting, but the situation was brought under control, said police spokesperson Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini.

In the Jerusalem informal settlement, near Boksburg, police came under fire as they tried to stop a group of about 500 people from looting shops there.

Police in Cape Town were identifying possible flashpoints for xenophobic violence and would have units on standby, the city administration said on Monday.

”The spread of attacks on refugees and foreign nationals from Alexandra through Gauteng has prompted the city … to ensure that similar incidents are not instigated on a similar scale in our city,” mayoral committee member for safety Dumisani Ximbi said in a statement.

He appealed to communities and leaders across Cape Town to discourage any forms of violence or intolerance and to inform the police immediately of any incidents.

Seeking refuge

As evening approached in Reiger Park, local residents served tea and coffee to people seeking refuge and offered them accommodation for the night in their homes.

The engines of bakkies loaded with furniture belonging to people of Zimbabwean and Mozambican origin idled outside, preparing to leave the area.

Entire families camped outside — women with babies on their backs, and young children who had been forced to skip school.

The South African Red Cross Society and the St Vincent’s Anglican church next door helped provide shelter and aid.

At least 10 000 foreigners are taking shelter at community centres on the East Rand, said Ekurhuleni metro spokesperson Zweli Dlamini.

”The figures are escalating as people run for their dear lives,” said Dlamini. Ambulances are ”driving up and down,” and clinics are on alert to deal with violence, as well as the medical needs of the displaced.

Aid provision

A joint operations centre had been set up in Bedfordview by Monday evening to coordinate humanitarian needs. Organisations such as the Red Cross and Oxfam were providing basic food supplies and aid to various areas in Johannesburg and on the East Rand.

”We are providing aid in the form of food parcels, blankets, sanitary packs and clothing to refugees, as well as first aid and psychological services to those in need,” David Stephens, acting secretary general of the Red Cross, told the M&G Online.

More than 2 000 blankets have been distributed, as well as R60 000-worth of basic food in the greater Boksburg area.

According to Stephens, government disaster-management services had been mobilised to manage aid provided to refugees, housed at various civic centres as well as police stations in and around Johannesburg. He said the situation could only be evaluated properly once chaos brought on by attacks had been brought under control.

Oxfam said it was providing assistance to more than 8 000 refugees in coordination with the Red Cross, Jesuit Refugee Services and municipal disaster-management teams in affected areas ranging from the Johannesburg CBD and Alexandra to Diepsloot, Kya Sands, Thokoza and Primrose.

Nombuso Shabalala, media and communications officer for Oxfam, said: ”We are calling on the government for a more coordinated and effective response so that people’s basic needs and rights are met.”

However, M&G reporters visiting Jeppe police station in the Johannesburg CBD on Monday said they saw little evidence of these relief efforts. There were long queues of refugees waiting to fill out Red Cross paperwork, but everyone the journalists spoke to claimed that they had not eaten all day and that they were forced to sleep in the open air without blankets.

A marquee tent had been set up at the police station for mothers and children, but the children were complaining of hunger and cold. At about 2pm, a team from the Methodist Church arrived with boxes of apples and loaves of sliced bread and almost sparked a stampede.

Scores of blind Zimbabwean beggars who had been brutalised and robbed by the mobs were being pushed aside by the hungry crowds. Church officials tried to maintain order and insisted that the food be given to women and children first. For some of the hungry men who had not eaten for 24 hours, this was a bitter pill to swallow.

The lucky few who did make it to the front of the queue were given two slices of bread and an apple each.


Responding to the Democratic Alliance’s criticism that the government’s disaster response had been slow and basic requirements like toilets were not adequate, Dlamini said the response organisers would order more toilets and other necessities.

A consortium of NGOs also criticised the government’s response, saying it was inadequate and the situation needed to be treated as a state of emergency.

The Treatment Action Campaign, saying that antiretroviral programmes should not be disrupted, ”reluctantly” joined the call for the army to intervene.

A statement from acting police National Commissioner Tim Williams’s office said that after a meeting of top police officials on Monday, it was decided to deploy additional members with ”experience and training in reacting to medium- to high-risk situations” in Gauteng.

Willliams also thanked the police who had been working to try to control the situation under ”extremely stressful conditions” and called on community leaders to help by talking within the communities they serve.

Mbeki’s spokesperson Mukoni Ratshitanga said the president was ”very concerned” by developments and reiterated a call for the violence to stop. ”We are taking these things very seriously,” he said.

World Cup

Meanwhile, the international football fraternity understands that the xenophobic attacks are as a result of the conduct of some ”disgruntled” individuals, the 2010 local organising committee (LOC) said on Monday.

Chief executive Danny Jordaan said the attacks would not deter people from coming to the World Cup as they understood the context in which the attacks were happening.

”Most people understand that the attacks arise from the conduct of disgruntled people. Many people around the world condemn this behaviour,” he said, adding that it was evident to the international community that the attacks were not nationally endorsed.

Jordaan said the LOC condemned the attacks ”unreservedly”, though Fifa president Sepp Blatter has refused to comment on the effect the attacks may have on the World Cup.