African turned on African. Mobs looted shops, threatened lives and smashed anything they could get their hands on. There were languages from across Africa shouted through the streets of the capital of Pretoria on this confusing afternoon – one language was heard above the rest; the language of the boot.
By 11AM, in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, angry youths stood by the side of Townlands Road – rocks in hand. Earlier they had thrown rocks, witnesses said, at any vehicle entering where the so-called foreigners live. A police van stood by, just out of rock range.
For the mob, getting rid of fellow Africans, they call foreigners, was their aim; bigotry their game.
“All those who are selling drugs, nyaope (South African street drug), doing prostitution and human trafficking should voetsek (go away in Afrikaans). Would Robert Mugabe allow me to sell drugs in Zimbabwe? No, never! So why is our government failing us. This is war that’s not going to end. As you can see, it started slowly but let me tell you it’s going to get huge,” says Thembi Skhosana, a South African protester in Marabastad.
In many ways Skhosana epitomized the ugly threat on the streets.
“If our government doesn’t tell these people to go, people are going to die. [The government] is used to killing people, like they did in Marikana, so even now blood will be spilt,” she says.
Skhosana criticized the authorities for failing to clamp down on foreigners without permits.
“It’s best that we take the matter into our own hands. Police have failed. When they take bribes that means they’re also taking things into their own hands; we might as well deal with this our own way.”
On the other side, people also prepared to deal with things in their own way.
In Marabastad, Somali immigrants took up machetes, sticks‚ rocks and knives.
A Somalian shop owner, who sells groceries, Ali Abdul Hasen, came to South Africa as a refugee in 2006 to escape terrorist attacks.
“I came to South Africa for peace, stability and to provide for my family. When I came here I believed I would forget the sound of bullets, and killing each other. In Somalia there are terrorist attacks; you can get injured and die, but not from knives and axes to cut you into pieces,” says Hasen.
“They’re attacking us so we have no choice but to fight back. We have closed all our shops in the townships and came to this area, and now they’re attacking us here, again. We have to counter attack; it’s just tit for tat,” he says.
A woman wearing a peach-colored dress emerged waving a machete and shouting in her mother tongue. I couldn’t make out what she was saying but she wasn’t stopping for anyone.
Then we heard screams and shouting of enraged Somalians, everyone running to the left, chasing a young man in his twenties. When they caught him, the Somalis beat him up. We thought they were going to kill him. Police fired stun grenades to disperse the attackers. A journalist in the crowd was hit in the back by a rubber bullet.
Protesters looted the clothing and home appliance shop of Pakistani Muhammed Yaqoob. The floor was strewn with broken glass and debris. A dismayed Yaqoob walked gingerly over the broken glass, counting the cost of his empty shelves.
“I was at home when I received a call that my shop has been broken into. They took mattresses, shoes and blankets which amount to R50,000 (around $3,800),” he says.
“Life is better when there is peace. We are here to work for our families. And I believe that we are providing jobs, in this shop alone we have three ladies we hired. I’m also involved in feeding schemes providing food to local churches and giving blankets to street kids. But these are the same people who were among the group that stole our stuff,” says Zahid Afzal, chairperson of the area’s business forum.
In 2003, Afzal traveled 7,617 kilometers from Pakistan to Pretoria for business. He makes about R5,000 ($380) a week and sends half of it to his wife and two children. He’s contemplating going home, even if it’s not that safe there.
“Most of us are here because we are under threat of terrorism in Pakistan. There’s lots of bomb blasts happening in every part of the country. If this continues we have no choice but to go back home,” says Afzal.
About 40 shops have closed in Mamelodi and Atteridgeville, in Pretoria, and 12 houses were burned in Rosettenville, south of Johannesburg. According to Brigadier Sally De Beer of the South African Police Service, about 136 people were arrested for looting and being in possessing firearms and drugs.
“I’m actually not willing to stay in South Africa as I can see the situation is like this now, I’d rather go back to Somalia. I’m sure if I’d be killed in my country I would be killed by a terrorist, not by civilians,” says Hasen.
While we were in Atteridgeville, police arrested South African protesters, confiscating a firearm as well as needles and drugs wrapped in a black shopping bag. By this time it was chaos.
“I was born to die. If I die today, it’s fine. But your mother will be killed first. F**k you,” shouted a man, believed to be a Nigerian, raising a middle finger to the mob.
“The dislike of foreigners in the use of foreign labor from Africa, India, and Europe to undermine black economic and political power during the apartheid period… this has conditioned people to see foreigners – particularly Africans, but also those from other regions – as a threat. This sense of threat has been exacerbated by public statements and actions from officials in all parties, police, and people in society at large,” says Loren Landau, from the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Inequality and unemployment make it worse.
“Unless the conditions leading to these attacks change, violence will continue,” he says.
“Public education is a start, but this will not counter the incentives and benefits of violence for those who lead it. We will need the police to hold organizers responsible; to reconsider how we plan and manage our cities and to hold politicians to task when they demonize any group in our society, including refugees and other immigrants.”
According to the Nigerian Union South Africa spokesperson, Eneka Ezinteje, about 800,000 Nigerians are currently in South Africa. According to reports, about 116 Nigerians were attacked in South Africa in the last two years. In 2016, 20 were killed.
How many Africans have to die before something is done?