“Mabahambe, sesikhathele!” – They must leave, we have had enough. This was the war cry from hundreds of men wielding huge sticks, pangas, knives, stones and other weapons as they combed the city of Johannesburg, looting shops and damaging cars as they made their way from Jeppestown to Bree on Monday.
The men, who randomly terrorised people they came across, sent shoppers and traders running for cover as they wove their way through the city. Many shops in the CBD had not opened for the day fearing that there might be looting. Yet, despite being closed, many still fell victim to the marauding mob. The violence on Monday followed a night of looting and robberies in Jeppestown and surrounding areas on Sunday.
By lunchtime, reports came in of violence in Tembisa, Jeppestown, Turffontein, the Bree Street taxi rank and surrounds as well as Fordsburg and Mayfair. Reports said police had been forced to retreat from the Bree Street tax rank.
Each area is home to large numbers of migrant communities or large numbers of migrant traders.
Speaking to Daily Maverick in the Joburg CBD, victims of the looting said that they feared for their lives and the lives of their loved ones. Residents of Jeppestown said they blame the government for the attacks.
“They said they spared me a beating because I am South African. Most of the Zulu guys know me,” a woman who works in the city but who wanted to remain anonymous said.
While Daily Maverick could not independently confirm this, many residents, shop owners and traders in the Jeppe area claimed the men who looted stores in the CBD on Monday and in Jeppe on Sunday and Monday were mostly residents of the Jeppe Hostel.
“They said they were punishing me because I had made it easier for my partner to remain in the country as he is not from here but hails from Somalia,” said 33-year-old Mpho Moahloli.
Moahloli and her partner run a cellphone repair business and a small salon in the same building where they stay in Jules Street. Moahloli said she was very scared for her partner’s life. Moahloli and her son hid inside a dustbin before escaping through a small window at the back of the building on Sunday night. Moahloli’s partner sought refuge in at a neighbour’s house after being threatened with death.
“The woman who hid my husband was assaulted,” Moahloli said.
Moahloli lost dryers, TVs, and the perpetrators also got away with their cellphones and cash.
“They attacked us at about 21.55, we were defenseless. We just decided to hide because they were making many threats directed at my partner,” added Moahloli.
Monday’s violence followed an incident in which two men and a woman died in a building fire in what police believe was a lovers’ quarrel. Police say criminals took advantage of the situation and started attacking nearby shops. The violence has increasingly been meted out on foreign nationals.
By mid-morning on Monday, news came that the wave of looting had spread and was hitting Fordsburg and Mayfair. The area is home to over 20 different migrant groups from Somalia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malawi, Ethiopia and other countries and is regarded by scholars as one of the most cosmopolitan in the country.
Eyewitnesses told Daily Maverick the alleged looters who had stopped near the local Shoprite and the Somalian trading hub, the Amal shopping hub, had arrived in taxis with the clear plan to loot. But they were rebuffed by the traders who attacked the taxis with bricks. The streets were strewn with glass and bricks and all local businesses including banks, fast food stores, butchers and other traders had all shut up shop as news spread from the rest of the city that looters were advancing.
There were no police present and private security took up the slack. By mid-afternoon, the area was tense but there was no evidence of further looting attempts.
While police minister Bheki Cele called the spreading looting a national emergency, police officers on the ground faced heavy criticism by residents and shop owners.
Some Jeppestown shop owners said when they called police they were told there were no cars available but when they went over to the police station they found several idle cars. Others said when they phoned the police station, which is less than a kilometre away, they were told by some officers that they would not respond to the incidents because they were motivated by xenophobia.
“I simply did not understand what they meant by that. Here we are facing imminent death and the police give us lame excuses. You know how painful that is, my brother. I blame the government. The government of South Africa does not take foreign nationals seriously,” said 48-year-old Aaron Omorc, a Nigerian shop owner.
Omorc has placed a step ladder at the back of the flat. He said this would make it easier for him to escape to the roof when attacked again. Omorc said his friend, whose business was also looted, had disappeared on Sunday night and he has not heard from him since. He said he was aware that about four people were killed during Sunday night’s looting, which heightened his fears for his friend. Daily Maverick has been unable to confirm that four people were killed in the looting on Sunday.
During Monday’s looting in Johannesburg, security guards in many of the looted shops either ran away or watched from a distance. The looters showed no respect for street traders as they kicked their oranges, apples and other fruits and vegetables while abusing the women.
In an incident witnessed by Daily Maverick, one of the men asked a trader: “Have you ever been raped? Have the guys where you come from ever raped you?” As he swung at her goods with a big stick, others helped themselves to the informal trader’s wears.
In another incident, looters stole the goods of a local Jeppestown supermarket. Police arrived while they were still on the scene and fired rubber bullets at the looters. Several were arrested.
The recent turmoil has raised some fears from nearby Maboneng business owners who fear that the scale and frequency of the violence in neighbouring Jeppestown could drive away investors.
Ernest Nkomo owns the building housing Legrand in Maboneng which also houses a quaint little coffee shop.
“My biggest concern is the criminality. This will drive investors away and that is not what we need right now because we see a bright future in this place. If we were renting we would simply move elsewhere but we cannot move because we own the building,” Nkomo said.
Police were unable to confirm how many arrests had been made but according to a report on News24, 31 people were arrested for looting and setting shops and cars alight in the Johannesburg CBD by Monday morning. DM
"If a man seeks from the good life anything beyond itself, it is not the good life he is seeking" ~ Plotinus