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Mail & Guardian Reporters, Sapa-AFP20 May 2008 21:28
Thousands of refugees in and around Johannesburg faced another night filled with anxiety on Tuesday evening as xenophobic tensions and violence continued to spread through the province.
The violence has so far claimed 24 lives and left up to 10Â 000 people seeking refuge in shelters across Gauteng. By midday on Tuesday, 297 people had been arrested in relation to the unrest.
Fierce attacks on foreigners started in Alexandra, north of Johannesburg, just more than a week ago and have since spread to several other townships in the province—including Zamimpilo in Riverlea, Diepsloot and Kya Sands to the west of Johannesburg, and Ramaphosa and Makause in the east, as well as Tembisa and Thokoza—as well as the Johannesburg CBD.
South African citizens have also been targeted in the attacks, with Shangaans, Pedis and other groups assaulted.
In Kagiso, west of Johannesburg, many foreigners, mostly women and children, started arriving at the Kagiso police station early on Tuesday evening, saying they were fleeing sporadic fighting in the area that had been going on since the previous night.
Dozens of people were arriving in trucks and vans, with some running along the road, to seek safety. Some parents had sent their children away to family members living around the area while they sought sanctuary at the police station.
At least 50 refugees had to be redirected to another police station that had more space to accommodate them.
Residents told the Mail & Guardian Online that trouble in the area had started on Saturday, when foreigners there had held a meeting to discuss their fears of being attacked. This meeting, however, raised concerns among South Africans, and on Monday a mob of about 1Â 000 people had attacked those believed to be foreigners.
At about 8pm on Tuesday evening, police got word that violence had flared up in the Tudor Shaft informal settlement—this despite a community meeting between police, South Africans and foreigners earlier in the day where foreigners had been told that police would escort them to their homes to help them collect their possessions.
Heavily armed police officers wearing bulletproof vests were surrounding the informal settlement while other officers went inside to investigate the reports of violence.
Metro police, the South African Police Service and disaster-management and public safety officials were on the scene.
Meanwhile, at Jeppe police station in the Johannesburg CBD, where hundreds of foreigners have been sheltered since the weekend, Médecins sans FrontiÃ¨res official Henrik Glette told the M&G that two refugees had left the station to go to a shop, but they were attacked and stabbed. Their wounds were being attended to, he said.
In Mayfair, M&G reporters found Somali nationals living in fear as a mob had appeared at their home, which housed only single mothers and children, on Monday night.
Mob members pointed out houses owned by foreigners, they said, and threatened to return at 2am or 3am. The terrified women then fled to the local mosque, which was still closed, and waited for it to open for prayers. Mosque workers later accompanied them back to their home.
The women reported phoning the police’s 10111 emergency number, but said they received no response.
One of the women, Zuleika Dahir, said: “We were very scared because we saw on TV they don’t even have mercy for mothers and children.”
The women—who themselves fear being raped—have been keeping their children out of school as two of the children, aged nine and seven, were accosted by a mob when returning from school. The mob demanded to see their birth certificates or identity documents, but the children ran away.
On Tuesday, during the day, the women said locals came up to them and said: “You are still here? We will get you.”
Some of the women have been in South Africa for up to 14 years and have asylum-seeker status. They don’t, however, have any travel documents or passports, and can therefore not travel anywhere.
As police announced the launch of “specialised units” to combat the deadly xenophobic violence in Gauteng and the National Intelligence Agency confirmed that it was probing the violence, President Thabo Mbeki’s government on Tuesday stood accused of serious policy failures that “created a tinderbox of unmet expectations which exploded in Alexandra”.
In a scathing indictment on Mbeki’s past 10 years of rule, the institute listed crime, inadequate border control, unemployment, education and corruption as some of the key areas where the government had failed.
“Essentially these [government] failures contributed to create a perfect storm of lawlessness, poverty, and unfulfilled expectations, which has now erupted into violence,” the SAIRR said in a statement, adding that the government’s failure to bring the high levels of violent crime under control had contributed to an environment where people resorted “to violence without fear of arrest or successful prosecution”.
“In failing to maintain the rule of law, the state had conditioned many poor communities to violent behaviour,” it said.
Incompetence in the Safety and Security Ministry and corruption in the police as well as affirmative action had diminished the capacity of the police to ensure a safe environment in the country.
Authorities act on violence
The National Intelligence Agency is involved in the investigation to uncover the root of the xenophobic violence. Agency spokesperson Lorna Daniels on Tuesday confirmed the involvement of the agency, saying the body is working with the police and other law-enforcement agencies. She did not elaborate further.
Gauteng minister of sport Barbara Creecy—speaking on behalf of community safety minister Firoz Cachalia—at the Gauteng legislature on Tuesday said police had “concrete evidence” of a suspected “third force” involvement in the attacks.
Provincial African National Congress spokesperson Nkenke Kekana said there had to be a “hidden hand” aiming to destabilise communities in the province, which is Southern Africa’s economic hub. The party’s provincial leadership was to receive reports from its branches and members on the ground at a meeting later on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Safety and Security Minister Charles Nqakula said “specialised units” would be deployed by police to areas where there had been xenophobic violence. He was speaking while on a visit to Primrose—one of the areas affected by the violence.
“We are going hard on the situation,” he said. The number of police officers will be increased and there will be visible police patrols in areas hit by xenophobic attacks.
The minister told displaced foreign nationals who had gathered at the Primrose police station that no one had the right to harass them.
Gauteng local government minister Qedani Mahlangu said a provincial disaster-management centre would help foreign nationals with arrangements to relocate—if they wish to do so—and provide them with food.
Nqakula said displaced foreign nationals would be relocated to habitable places, adding that police had done their best under the circumstances by opening police stations to provide shelter for the displaced.
Earlier on Tuesday, Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa condemned xenophobic violence in the province, saying top police management would decide on a possible army deployment. “The decision to deploy the army should not be a political decision, but that of senior managers of the police, based on their assessment of the situation and required capacity,” he said.
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