JOHANNESBURG – African migrants here have been thrown into serious panic, after mobs of locals went on a rampage, looting shops, overturning vending stalls and brazenly shooting in the air Tuesday evening, in attacks that have shown traits of xenophobia.
Barely a week after some government departments accused migrant shop owners of having attacked police officers, following skirmishes that took place in the Johannesburg city centre, Tuesday’s looting spree has largely been seen as locals retaliating on behalf of the law-enforcement agents, who have largely been accused of being unhelpful during similar attacks on migrants.
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 law-enforcement agents responded with stun grenades and rubber bullets as they claimed they were searching for counterfeit goods and expired products, but made a “tactical withdrawal” when a group of vendors and small shops owners – predominantly migrants but also including locals, began to pelt them with missiles and petrol bombs.
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.
Blaming them for “acts of anarchy and lawlessness” the ruling African National Congress’s Gauteng Province accused “some foreign national traders” of having prevented law enforcement agencies from carrying out crime prevention operations targeting counterfeit goods in the Johannesburg CBD.
“We commend the conduct of the police as they ensured there were no casualties, however, the thuggery and violence that confronted them should not go unpunished. Criminals must never believe that Gauteng is a safe haven for them,” said the ANC in a statement released August 1, a day after the skirmishes.
“The brazen attack on the officers of the law is an act of extreme provocation and poses a serious threat to the safety and security of South Africans and other nationalities who are in the country legally. The ability of the state to maintain law and order has seriously been undermined. We call on law enforcement agencies and the relevant government departments to not be intimidated and to respond firmly in rooting out lawlessness, dealing with illegal immigration and criminality in our society.”
The Provincial Commissioner of police in Gauteng, Lieutenant General Elias Mawela accused “foreign nationals” of incessantly undermining of the authority of the state in the Johannesburg CBD, adding, “Such lawlessness cannot be allowed to go unpunished.”
Gauteng MEC for Community Safety, MEC Faith Mazibuko added her voice to the condemnation, albeit with some xenophobic undertones.
“We condemn the attacks on police and members of other law enforcement agencies. We condemn all criminal elements hell-bent on undermining the Rule of the law in this country and making this country ungovernable,” she said.
“We can’t co-govern with criminals, especially foreign nationals who want to turn our country into a lawless Banana Republic. Working together with SAPS, JMPD, Home Affairs and SARS Customs, we will conduct a joint operation in that area. We will assert our authority and show ungovernable foreign nationals that there are laws in South Africa and they must be respected. We will also liaise with the Minister of DIRCO to engage embassies to encourage their citizens to respect the Laws of this country.”
The comments by government officials, condemned by migrant traders as one-sided and made out little knowledge, have been blamed to the latest surge on violence, as South Africans seemingly feeling undermined in their own country, decided to take the law into their own hands.
On Tuesday, the sporadic attacks, looting and shooting, began in the Johannesburg city centre and spread to outlying suburbs like Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville, where shops owned predominantly by Somali, Ethiopian and Bangladeshi nationals were targeted for looting of both goods and cash. Vending stall belonging to both migrants and locals were overturned during the worrying orgy of violence.
However, during an interview at a local radio station, chairman of the Zimbabwean Community in South Africa, Ngqabutho Nicholas Mabhena, said the narrative that the people who attacked the police officers were migrants was wrong.
“Counterfeit goods are being sold by both migrants and South Africans and it will be wrong to say migrants are criminals on the basis of what happened in the Johannesburg CBD,” said Mr Mabhena.
“I am a migrant but I do not sell on the streets and even if people sell on the streets, it does not mean they sell counterfeit goods. In any society, there are criminals and the police must target criminals, not every migrant.”
Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, Executive Chairman of migrants’ rights body, the African Diaspora Forum, bemoaned what he termed the continued harassment of migrants in South Africa. Dr Sibanda said Tuesday’s violence came after a meeting of people who called themselves “Patriotic South Africans”.
“We had attacks yesterday after a meeting by people who regard themselves as patriotic South Africans. They had a meeting at about 4:30pm and after that meeting we saw a short video of a man wearing white clothes, who is seen addressing a crowd of people. After the address, they went to attack the shops at Troye, Delvers and Jeppe and we saw those running battles,” said Dr Sibanda during an interview with Southern Express Wednesday morning.
“The fortunate part was that most of the shops had already closed because the migrant community had seen and circulated the messages and were relatively alert. We also know that at about 8pm there was an attack on a bottle store in Yeoville, near Shoprite but police from JMPD reacted very quickly and that stopped some looting from taking place.
“This is very, very unfortunate. We know that information about these attacks had been circulated to the police so that they could have helped with preventative measures. We had hoped that even at yesterday’s meeting they could have been there and would have known that an attack was taking place after that meeting, but we don’t know what exactly could have happened there.”
Dr Sibanda raised worry that the attacks on the migrant community were continuing unabated.
“The victimization that we are seeing has been ongoing for quite a while now and this is why we saw running battles last week because the migrants had long been saying this and so we see extenuating circumstances that led to migrants acting in the way they acted so that they could prevent the onslaught in terms of the attacks that are being unleashed on migrants and the lack of protection thereof.”