Johannesburg - On Friday night, in scenes reminiscent of the early 1990s violence on the Reef, scores of Jeppe and George Goch hostel inmates went on the rampage, breaking into businesses and threatening to unleash violence on everyone in their path.
According to Thabiso Thakali of Independent Newspapers, the men, armed with an assortment of weapons including guns, divided themselves into groups of 20. They went in different directions along the M2 highway that goes over Jeppe, Denver and George Goch.
Thakali said minibuses were dropping the men off and picking them up at different spots. And this kept the police very busy.
He said Jeppestown was under lockdown as the inmates barricaded the freeway using rocks. Police had a difficult job trying to close off the freeway and turning away cars approaching the area.
A woman whose vehicle had sustained a puncture stopped and asked the media crew to help her change the tyre. Thakali said they advised the terrified woman to keep on driving and get to the nearest garage as changing a tyre was dangerous with the mobs running around and firing at the police.
“They had guns and fired live ammunition in the direction of the police. The highway had to be blocked by the police, who were turning away cars because of the rocks and the live ammunition being fired towards them on the M2, next to the (Ellis Park) stadium around Denver.
“There were these minibuses that were taking and dropping these men off at different points.
“They tried to break into a workshop in Jules Street and when the police told them to stop, they scattered and jumped over walls and started firing at the police,” he said.
“We wanted to get closer but the police warned us that we were in danger. We also tried to approach the mob as journalists wanting to talk to them, but they came charging towards us and we had to drive off. These guys are blood-thirsty. If we had not run, they were going to hurt us badly.
“Our convoy had to make a U-turn on the highway against oncoming traffic. The police were also afraid of going inside the hostels. Later, reinforcements arrived and members of ama-Beret were able to move in,” he said.
“This had nothing to do with fighting for the genuine cause of unemployment but was just plain criminality. This is thuggery. As we had gathered as journalists from print as well as local and international television, we were battling to find a name for what was happening. It was pure criminality.”
On Saturdaynight, police battled to contain a wave of violence as gangs of migrants armed themselves with machetes to fight off anti-foreigner attacks by locals.
Five people have died since vigilantes started looting and attacking shops owned by immigrants, mainly from other parts of Africa.
Police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets as immigrant gangs confronted the vigilantes, and last night in parts of Johannesburg officers formed a human barrier to keep the two sides apart.
More than 200 immigrants had to take refuge in a police station and dozens of businesses were closed when trouble spread just a day after a rally against xenophobia in Durban, where the attacks began.
Immigrants have complained about a lack of protection from the authorities and some have started arming themselves to fight back.
Eyewitnesses have claimed that the vigilante violence is being carefully orchestrated and that minibuses have been ferrying men armed with knives and machetes around these suburbs.
In the past two weeks, shops and homes owned by Somalis, Ethiopians, Malawians and other migrants have been targeted, forcing more than 2 000 to flee to camps protected by armed guards.
Foreign shop owners near Johannesburg reportedly fled their businesses after receiving a text message saying “Zulu people are coming to town… to kill every foreigner”.
With unemployment mounting, many South Africans accuse immigrants from other parts of Africa and Asia of taking their jobs.
The violence has largely been blamed on comments by Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini, who said foreigners were “lice” who should “pack their bags” and return home.
He has since said that his comments were misinterpreted.
President Jacob Zuma has condemned the violence as a “violation” of South Africa’s values.
“No amount of frustration or anger can ever justify the attacks,” he said.
The Desmond and Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, which campaigns for peace, warned: “The fabric of the nation is splitting at the seams; its precious nucleus – our moral core – is being ruptured.”
In Johannesburg, Malawian immigrant Samuel Idrssa described how his friend was stabbed and set on fire by a mob. “We wanted to rescue him but there were too many of them,” he said. “It was shocking.”
He added: “We have all left our homes. Those affected are those of us who live in poor townships because we live with poor South Africans who do not have jobs.”
Durban, South Africa’s third-biggest city, has been hardest hit, with tents set up in the suburb of Chatsworth to offer sanctuary to 1 200 migrants who were forced from their homes.
Demonstrators who gathered for a peace march in the coastal city after days of violence were jeered by a crowd of hundreds.
Attacks on foreigners in Johannesburg in 2008 left 60 dead.
Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC-T) is calling on the South African government to put a stop to the rampant attacks on foreign nationals.
The organisation also said it was in the process of seeking a meeting with the Zulu king and the ministers of home affairs and police to raise awareness of their plight.
“We are concerned about reckless statements being spewed by some South African leadership. We urge our fellow brothers to be compassionate about life. Their responses to the eruption of xenophobic attacks must not sound like justification of the local people’s anger,” the MDC-T said.
“We want to remind South Africans that Zimbabweans also suffered for supporting the fight against apartheid. The majority of South African leaders stayed, worked and got educated in Zimbabwe.
“Zimbabweans died when the apartheid government bombed the Harare Sheraton (while) pursuing Thabo Mbeki when he ran to Zimbabwe in the late 1980s,” said the statement, signed by MDC-T South African chairman Chief Ndlovu.
* Additional reporting by Zingisa Mkhuma
The Sunday Tribune