Five dead as mobs burn down shops in 'anti-foreigner' riots in Johannesburg

Peta Thornycroft

The death toll from sweeping anti-immigrant riots in Johannesburg suburbs rose to five on Tuesday as police attempted to restore order with rubber bullets.

Large sections of Africa’s largest and wealthiest city were deserted as tens of thousands of workers, commuters and school children stayed home to avoid violence directed at ‘foreigners’ from other parts of Africa.

Rocks, bricks and rubber bullets lay strewn across the empty streets of Alexandra after mobs plundered the township overnight, burning and looting shops in their path.

Police presence remained heavy last night after officers fired rubber bullets to disperse the last of the crowds.

Many shops owned by ‘foreigners’ were looted on a second night of urban rioting where hundreds of people marched through the streets on Monday in an unusually large expression of anti-foreigner sentiment.

A group of Zulu men residing at the Jeppe Hostel shout and wave stick during a speech given by the Police Minister General Bheki Cele in JeppesTown Credit:  GUILLEM SARTORIO/AFP

Such violence breaks out sporadically in South Africa where many locals blame immigrants for high unemployment, particularly in manual labour.

“They beat up everyone they could see, they didn’t check to see who owned the shops, whether it was a foreigner or a South African shop,” said a Zimbabwe carpenter who asked not to be named.

Another migrant, reluctant to say where he came from, who lives in shabby Malvern suburb close to the city centre, said: “The people are going for Nigerians as they do drugs.”

At least five people died, according to authorities, and about 100 were arrested since the word went around last weekend that there would be a purge on migrants this week.

At least two South Africans were killed on Tuesday in a small town south of Johannesburg. A foreign national, believed to be a Somalian shopkeeper, was arrested with an unlicensed gun, according to sources close to the South African police.

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday condemned the wave of xenophobic violence.

Attacks on businesses run by "foreign nationals is something totally unacceptable, something that we cannot allow to happen in South Africa," Ramaphosa said in a video address diffused on Twitter.

"I want it to stop immediately," said Ramaphosa, adding that there was "no justification" for the violence.

President Cyril Ramaphosa said he went to the “hostels” to speak to people about the attacks.

The word hostels implies to many South Africans that the people he spoke to were Zulus - who still live in impoverished ghettoes formed during South Africa's mining boom.

"This violence is now mutating and taking different forms that represent themselves in a way that we do not want to see in South Africa, where communities seem to be attacking one another. We want this to stop immediately," he said.

While most illegal foreigners are from African countries, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Burundi, there is a steady flow of illegal nationals from Pakistan who mostly enter the country from Mozambique.

South African truckers also started a nation-wide strike on Sunday to protest against the employment of foreign drivers.

They staged road blockades and torched foreign-driven vehicles in various parts of the country on Monday.

Police say about 200 long-haul drivers were injured or killed on the 350 mile highway between Johannesburg and port city Durban last year, while more than 2000 trucks were attacked.

Bishop Paul Verryn, who allowed thousands of Zimbabwe refugees to live for more than five years in Johannesburg’s Central Methodist Church, said he was approached by a group of foreign long-haul truck drivers last Saturday: “Somehow they knew violence was coming and came to tell me of their fears.”