/ 19 May 2008

Mob violence sweeps Gauteng

Another foreigner has been killed in South Africa as a wave of xenophobic violence spreads across Johannesburg, bringing the weekend death toll to 13, police said on Monday.

“Last night [Sunday] was relatively quiet compared to previous nights. We had a few incidents, one murder was reported from Alexandra. The body was found with bullet wounds,” said police spokesperson Govindsamy Mariemuthoo.

He said police from around the country’s financial capital would meet on Monday to collate information from the weekend attacks in townships and the downtown area.

About 250 people had been arrested during the attacks, including those committing offences such as looting which Mariemuthoo said were “pure criminal activities”.

The violence against foreigners, who are accused by many South Africans of depriving locals of jobs and committing crime, has spread across townships since the beginning of last week.

Wielding guns and machetes, marauding mobs have launched attacks on foreigners from neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

On Sunday an immigrant died after being covered with his own blankets and set alight. The gruesome image of the human fireball was captured on the front-page of several South African papers on Monday.

Talk Radio 702 reported on Monday that the situation in Primrose on the East Rand was “extremely tense” and a crowd of people with makeshift weapons had gathered there.

There were also reports of mobs in Kya Sands and at the Zandspruit informal settlement on the West Rand.

A 702 reporter said a mob had also gathered in the Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand and were toyi-toying around a huge fire.

Mariemuthoo said the violence spread to Hillbrow, Jeppe, Cleveland and central Johannesburg, over the weekend.

Mariemuthoo said there was a substantial police presence in all the affected areas.

“We are using all the available resources and will call in reinforcements if the need arises,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Red Cross said they had recorded at least 3 000 cases of people across Gauteng who are now destitute.

Spokesperson Freedom Ngubeni said most of the foreigners were “scared and terrified”.

Ngubeni said there was a shortage of food, clothing and blankets.

Médécins Sans Frontières said the situation now amounted to a humanitarian crisis.

“I have been to many refugee camps and situations and this definitely is along those lines,” spokesperson Eric Goemaere said. “This reminds me of a refugee situation. I have treated bullet wounds, beaten people, rape victims and the people are terrified.”

The violence has also affected businesses owned by immigrants from Asian countries like Pakistan.

An estimated three million Zimbabweans have fled to South Africa as a result of the political and economic crisis at home.


President Thabo Mbeki announced on Sunday that a panel had been set up to look into the attacks.

Speaking in Pretoria, African National Congress (ANC) president Jacob Zuma condemned the attacks on foreigners.

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.”

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 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, 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 [Sunday] 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.