Johannesburg - After years of trouble, Susan de Beer’s nightmare ended most unexpectedly last Friday afternoon.
Peering outside her small semi-detached house in Krugersdorp West, the 67-year-old was surprised to see a group of local police and municipal officials enter the filthy, dilapidated drug den next door.
They emerged from the burnt-out house with a drugged 15-year-old girl who had allegedly been prostituted by a pimp for drugs. Inexplicably, the group of older men preying on her were set free.
“What a terrible place,” remarks De Beer nearly a week late with a grimace, nodding her grey-haired head at the derelict neighbouring property.
“From 2am until 6am, I didn’t sleep. All kinds of bad things happened there.”
At last, De Beer and her elderly neighbours on this rundown street in the battered heart of the working-class area have a semblance of peace - for now.
“Now that they’re all gone, it’s better for me and my grandkids,” says De Beer, proudly showing off her tiny, scraggly-looking garden.
“We try to keep our things nice, but there are drugs all over this area.
“The other day I saw that same 15-year-old girl the police rescued back on the streets, full of drugs. Her mother is also a junkie.
Sitting with De Beer, whom he affectionately calls “granny”, Lethabo Sebogodi details how Krugersdorp has become overrun with drug dealers, human trafficking and prostitution.
But instead of tackling crime, the police have worked with criminal gangs.
“The local police have had no respect for the community.
“They were taking bribes, eating with the drug dealers, drinking with them and protecting them,” says Sebogodi, the youth co-ordinator for Mogale City local municipality.
“Our complaints about drugs, prostitution and police corruption have been raised for years, with numerous petitions, marches and memorandums.”
Nothing happened. “Last week, we thought enough was enough because it’s our young people who were exposed to this and commit crime to feed their addictions.”
Last week, residents of Kagiso, Munsieville and Krugersdorp took the law into their own hands, torched suspected drug dens and brothels.
On Monday the protests became more violent. Residents blocked roads and continued to burn alleged drug houses, brothels and a satellite police station. Some residents looted shops. In response, the police fired rubber bullets, with about 60 people arrested for public violence in the ensuing chaos.
On Tuesday, Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula visited the area, promising residents he would rein-in corrupt police officers colluding with local druglords.
“Let me tell you, this protest was provoked by the police,” Sebogodi says. “If they didn’t shoot our people but escorted the community, this was going to be a peaceful march. On Saturday, when our foreign brothers marched from ‘Lagos’ to Krugersdorp police station because they felt they were under attack, they were escorted by the police.”
Standing in her litter-strewn yard in Krugersdorp West, Charlene Smit tells how her unemployed husband, too, joined Monday’s protest.
“He was right there toyi-toying because he doesn’t want our daughters to get hooked on drugs,” she said.
The 23-year-old mother of four is holding her eight-month-old baby, his face smeared with dirt in her arms.
“The druggies steal anything they can sell to get high.
“They steal our clothes from the washing line. We’re not against the Nigerians - just the drugs they are giving to our children,” she says.
Clad in her satin gown, Jane Matati, who also lives on the property, agrees: “We have to keep our kids locked up because it’s not safe here”.
She opens her gown, revealing marks on her legs. “But I don’t agree with the violence by the community. On Monday they started attacking me and saying I’m taking drugs, when in fact I have a skin condition.”
There are at least five suspected drug houses in just two streets. From her house, Ansie Kruger looks at one across the road.
A sign has been sprayed on the front door, like a warning: “No Nigerians. No drugs, leave our girls, go away.”
Kruger toys with the large crucifix hanging around her neck. “I never go to the shop alone. I’m too scared. These dealers don’t leave you alone, they touch you and want to sell drugs to you.
“You can’t be out at night. Sometimes you hear women screaming. I have to put my TV on loud so my little daughter can’t hear what’s going on.”
In parts, Krugersdorp seems like a ghost-town. The doors of pawn shops, salons and cellphone repair shops are being hurriedly shut.
“You can see how they’re packing up,” says Sebogodi. “Remember, we said we don’t want them in our town.”
While there’s a distinctly anti-Nigerian undertone to the protests, he insists xenophobia is not the driver.
“We don’t want to say specifically Nigerians are involved. We rather say those who are involved in criminality in our town must leave.
“Some of our brothers and sisters who are foreigners are here for a good cause but those who come with bad intentions, I’m sorry, I don’t have mercy for them,” he says.
Marc Gbaffou, the chairperson of the African Diaspora Forum, received calls throughout this week from migrants who felt victimised and fearful in Krugersdorp.
“Crime doesn’t have a nationality,” he cautions.
“We acknowledge there are challenges, but let’s stand together to fight crime.
“If you take the Nigerian community, we have so many medical doctors saving lives daily in South Africa, we have so many researchers teaching South African students in universities and many engineers are Nigerian.”
Driving through an area in Krugersdorp that locals have dubbed “Lagos”, the ruins of the protest - burnt tyres and tree stumps - lie in the road like symbols of victory. “You see how people can walk freely now,” says Sebogodi. “This isn’t a losing battle.”
From her house, Mbuyi Gobo stares contemptuously at a burnt cash shop and suspected brothel, being stripped by recyclers. “I’m glad it’s gone. This place was a nightmare.”
A few streets away, Theo van Es shows how his house was damaged when protesters hurled a petrol bomb at his neighbour, a suspected drug den. “I’m not coming back here.
“The police were here every day collecting money. They work with these criminals. How can you ever stop this? This place is hell.”
But for her part, De Beer seems hopeful there will be change. “It’s good the people protested. Enough is enough.”
She knows all too well about the ravages of drugs. Her youngest son was a drug addict in high school, but “dankie Here, hy het did gelos” (Thank God, he stopped that).
Her daughter, who lives nearby, looks like a skeleton.
“My daughter and her boyfriend lived with me. He took tik. They stayed here for three years and terrorised me in my own home, stealing my stuff and selling it for drugs. I had to get a court order to put them out.”
Overcome with curiosity, she carefully enters the empty rat-infested drug house, dodging the broken beer bottles and heaps of rubbish under the ripped-out wooden floorboards.
The only furniture is two dirty, stained mattresses.
Cryptic messages are scrawled on the walls.
One reads, “put the blade in me,” another, “sorry for all the pain I’ve put you through”.