Business Day (Johannesburg)

19 May 2008

South Africa: Xenophobic Rage Leaves Trail of Havoc in Gauteng

Johannesburg — AMID warnings of a looming humanitarian crisis in Gauteng, SA's main economic hub, at least 12 people were killed and hundreds injured in apparent xenophobic attacks that spread to townships and parts of Johannesburg at the weekend.

The violence, which until late last week was mostly confined to Alexandra and Diepsloot townships, has grown more widespread, with attacks reported in several areas yesterday.

Provincial police spokesman Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said last night a number of attacks against foreigners had been recorded in Zandspruit, Johannesburg CBD, Hillbrow, Jeppestown, Primrose, Thokoza Tembisa and Cleveland.

In an informal settlement near Reiger Park on the East Rand, a man was burnt to death yesterday afternoon, an eyewitness said. Mariemuthoo said police had arrested more than 200 people on charges including murder, attempted murder, rape, public violence and robbery.

International medical and relief group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said the thousands of foreigners left destitute now amounted to a humanitarian crisis.

"I have been to many refugee camps and situations, and this definitely is along those lines," the group's spokesman, Dr Eric Goemaere, said.

He said other countries defined who was a refugee, and people were protected and granted assistance, whereas in SA they were staying at police stations and said there was a need for the government to accord foreigners "some kind of status".

MSF has presence in Alexandra, Diepsloot and visited Jeppe, parts of the East Rand and the central methodist church in the Johannesburg CBD.

"This reminds me of a refugee situation. I have treated bullet wounds, beaten people, rape victims and the people are terrified," Goemaere said.

He said the police appeared to be overwhelmed by the attacks.

"There is no way the police will be able to protect foreigners, all they can do is react to an outbreak of violence. The violence is spreading, and the situation is tense," he said.

Human Rights Commission chairman Jody Kollapen said last night that everyone, including the police, had been caught off guard and that the situation may need the deployment of the military in trouble spots .

"If we are going to secure communities and townships -- given the demands normally made on law enforcement by crime -- given the demands this will make, we have to ask do the police have the capacity. We should be asking whether we need to bring in the military.

"We have to get churches, trade unions, structures that have a presence within the community to raise these issues and say what's happening in the broader country? It's not too late to talk to people about their frustration, but prevent that from being channelled into rage against foreigners?

"The feelings of hatred that are coming out at these levels, it takes us back to the horrible days of apartheid, It is a major concern," he said.

The weekend's violence was characterised by apparently random attacks.

In the most serious of the incidents at the Cleveland informal settlement, six people were killed and 50 more were injured in the early hours of yesterday morning. Scores of foreigners flocked to the Cleveland police station to seek refuge.

In Tembisa, one man was shot dead, and two others were injured while a number of shacks belonging to foreigners were burnt.

In the Cleveland incident, police arrested 16 people for murders.

A group of about 20 men carrying knives and machetes stopped a minibus taxi in Jeppestown looking for foreigners. The taxi sped off, before harm could come to its passengers.

Mariemuthoo said while police were investigating the nationalities of those killed, he knew of one South African who was killed in one of the incidents. He also said the situation in all affected areas remained calm last night.

The Red Cross said at least 3000 people across Gauteng were now destitute.

The violence seemed to have an effect on the movement of foreign nationals. Three Nigerian nationals, who are on the cast of a play called The Lion and the Jewel did not perform yesterday for fear of attacks.

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