Johannesburg - The Joburg city centre was on a knife edge for most of Wednesday, with many shopkeepers shutting their stores as fears of renewed xenophobic attacks in Gauteng surfaced.
A brazen text message circulating on social media networks warning foreigners to heed Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini’s call and “return to your home countries” heightened fears of renewed attacks on foreigners in Joburg.
“There was a rumour that there was some action against foreign nationals organised by some group that wanted foreign nationals attacked. It also emanated from a message circulated on WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter,” Gauteng Community Safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane told The Star on Wednesday.
She said the police were investigating the source of the text message, with the aim of arresting its author.
“When we received the calls (of alleged imminent attacks), we made sure the police, including those from the public order and tactical response team, were deployed.”
Nkosi-Malobane dismissed xenophobia as the cause of the closure of stores on Wednesday and said the closures were a result of an operation to clamp down on shopkeepers and vendors selling counterfeit goods, which was part of Gauteng’s crime-fighting strategy, Operation ke Molao (It’s the law).
Police said on Wednesday that an extra 800 officers had been deployed in Durban, where at least five people have died, including a 14-year-old, and more than a 1 000 immigrants have fled their homes.
Many have been beaten and had their businesses looted and vandalised.
State Security spokesman Brian Dube said all the flare-ups were being monitored.
There had been 74 arrests so far for murder, public violence, business robbery, theft, and possession of firearms and ammunition.
A peace march was to be held in Durban on Thursday, led by KZN Premier Senzo Mchunu, and was expected to attract 10 000 people.
Fear and panic also swept through Pietermaritzburg on Wednesday following isolated looting of foreign-owned shops in the CBD and surrounding suburbs.
Police said a group of about 20 South Africans had gone on the rampage, looting shops and intimidating foreign shopowners.
Terrified shopowners, local and foreign, were forced to shut.
Reporters from the Daily News saw about 30 people armed with knobkieries and sticks.
They struck cars gridlocked in traffic with their weapons, screaming to white and Indian motorists to “f*** off” and chanting “Africa is for Africans”.
As darkness descended in Joburg, tension at the Jeppestown hostel rose and began peaking with groups breaking off to riot, rob and attack whenever they got the chance.
Around 4pm, residents milled about on Margaret Mcingana Street in front of the hostel, holding an uneasy stand-off with police officers who had closed off the street to vehicles.
On Hanau Street, a block away, residents tried to rob passing cars and threw stones to threaten away those who got too close.
The tension reached breaking point as night approached, with police remaining at either end of the street as residents massed outside a hostel.
Several rioters tried to chase a passing beer truck, using whistles to communicate, and as the sun set, the crowd gathered around the hostel began breaking off.
Two young men ran towards the taped-off area and the police, saying they had just been robbed at gunpoint. They said they lived near the Kwa Mai-Mai Market, a few blocks from the hostel, and were headed home when hostel dwellers shoved them onto the ground and took their phones.
Media representatives weren’t off limits either. One journalist was groped by a hostel dweller and another had her phone stolen.
PowerFM reporter Tehillah Niselow said the residents were friendly with the media at first, laughing and joking together, before the mood shifted. “The crowd turned on the journalists,” she said.
After this, the break-off groups became more brazen, and shortly after dark, the police, who had been watching the situation escalate, began leaving the scene.
Later, three men were attacked by a group carrying sticks, stones and other weapons when they crossed the bridge over a railway. One was hit on the head with a hammer, and the other, who had tried to hide beneath a van, was found and pummelled with stones. They had been on their way to church.
A street away from the hostel, the looters tried to break into a local spaza shop not too far from where the police were parked, shielded by darkness.