JOHANNESBURG – Migrants rights group, the African Diaspora Forum on Wednesday advised non-South Africans to stay out of the Johannesburg city centre, as hundreds of members of the South African Police Service came out in full force, armed to the teeth and baying for blood.
Coming when the situation is already tense, with African migrants here already in panic mode, after mobs of locals went on a rampage, looting shops, overturning vending stalls and brazenly shooting in the air Tuesday evening, the police action has raised further fears of multi-pronged act of xenophobia in which various government bodies and ordinary South Africans could gang up against helpless migrants.
Actions by both the looting mobs and the police come barely a week after some running battles between police and small business operators in the Johannesburg CBD, which resulted in the law-enforcement agents retreating as they were pelted with stones and other missiles, as they tried to conduct a search for counterfeit goods.
Migrant shop owners deny that they attacked police officers as a show of disrespect last week, claiming they only resisted when officers from the South African Police Service – in the company of a group calling itself “Brand Owners” and members of the Johannesburg Metro Police Department, tried to ransack their shops without producing search warrants.
The skirmishes were followed by a looting spree by armed mobs of South Africans Tuesday evening, which has been described as locals retaliating on behalf of the law-enforcement agents, who have largely been accused of being unhelpful during similar attacks on migrants.
The traders, especially those from East African countries like Ethiopia and Somalia, who dominate the small business sector in the city centre, frequently come under attacks from the “Brand Owners”, who regularly raid their shops and vending stalls, ostensibly searching for counterfeit goods, but allegedly engaging in “Mafia style” operations where both men and women are regularly assaulted and sums of cash taken away.
Hard on the heels of the looting, police sealed off the Johannesburg CBD Wednesday morning, in an operation that could be following up on directives by government officials and the ruling African National Congress, that they should act on “acts of anarchy and lawlessness” by migrant traders.
“Town is a no go area, the people sent rushing in all directions were just by standers who had come for various purposes in the CBD and they were screamed at and approached with raised guns,” said ADF Executive Chairman, Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda during an interview with Southern Express Wednesday.
“When people are in flight, that is often what gets people picking things and throwing at the police. Should anyone react in that mob psych, then that would be the required excuse to get all hell breaking loose.”
Dr Sibanda, whose organisation tried to negotiate with the police to exercise restraint against members of the public, said the law-enforcement agents turned them away.
“They refuse to talk to us and our advice is for people to stay away because that is not an approach to solve anything, but to prove a point, either that there are illegal migrants or goods and hence their last attacks. It’s an operation to get that niche to justify their actions.”
Migrants responded to ADF calls by closing their shops and clearing the CBD and by afternoon, all the small shops owned by migrants had their doors shut.
Police however, were seen raiding some flats and chasing people around.