Migrant community in Zeerust fear for their lives after wave of xenophobic attacks

Migrant community in Zeerust fear for their lives after wave of xenophobic attacks
The Congolese community in Zeerust North West fears for its safety after a wave of xenophobic attacks that started on Sunday. ‘Truly speaking, we are living in fear for our lives. They will undress you; they will pour water all over your body, and then they will start beating you with those plastic whips,’ one person said. (Photo: Supplied)

Following the alleged rape of a woman on Sunday evening, community members in Zeerust, North West, assumed that a non-South African had committed the crime, sparking xenophobic attacks.

‘We need help here. We are suffering. We need help from outside because our leaders here from the government don’t do anything for us. Our life is not safe this side and everyone is traumatised.”

These were the words of a Congolese man who lives in Zeerust, North West. He asked not to be named. 

The alleged rape of a woman on Sunday, 5 November sparked a wave of xenophobic attacks in the area, with community members pre-emptively assuming that a foreign national had committed the crime.

“The community members went to look for our leader. They entered his home, beating him and his pregnant wife,” the Congolese individual said.

The individuals undressed the couple, poured water on them and beat them with stones, bricks and sticks.

zeerust attacks

The Congolese community in Zeerust North West has appealed for help after a wave of xenophobic attacks. (Photo: Supplied)

“They wounded them so badly. Two of the police vans were present but there was no intervention. There were also some police officers in [civilian] clothing that were just laughing and not even assisting.”

Following this incident, people have been roaming the streets looking for foreign nationals and assaulting them.

“We tried to report to the police but they turned us away. The way they don’t want to help us means that you know what is happening and they want these people to finish us,” he said.

Meeting with stakeholders 

A Zeerust pastor told Daily Maverick a meeting was held at the police station on Wednesday afternoon with officials from Home Affairs, the station commander, officials of the municipality and the taxi association.

“We were addressing our concerns and the challenges we are experiencing in Zeerust. We tried to show them that this thing is happening repeatedly. It happened in 2018, and it is happening again,” said the pastor, who asked not to be named, for his safety.

The pastor said they had pleaded for assistance as the community was attacking people without a valid reason. 

“Some were attacked in the name of just being Congolese. When they ask where you are from, and you say Congo, they start beating you,” he said. 

Some of those at the meeting voiced their concerns about the ineffectiveness of the South African Police Service (SAPS).

“We told them about our disappointment regarding the SAPS members because whenever we are having problems and we go to them they don’t help us,” the pastor said.

“They have got a lot of excuses and later on you will see the police vans circulating in the street doing nothing, sometimes we even see them when people are beating a foreign national, the van will pass and they don’t bother to stop the violence.”

The pastor said there were no South African community representatives from Zeerust at the meeting.

“Their reason is that they want the police to go to them. They don’t want to come to the police because they have come to them many times and they are not getting help so they have decided to do things their own way,” he said.

zeerust attacks

On Monday evening, more brutal attacks took place with seven people taken to the hospital for treatment. ‘Some were attacked in the name of just being Congolese. When they ask where you are from and you say, “Congo”, they start beating you,’ said a resident pastor. (Photo: Supplied)

“Truly speaking, we are living in fear of our lives. They will undress you, they will pour water all over your body and then they will start beating you with those plastic whips.”

On Tuesday evening, a young man was tied to an electrical pole in town.

“Their intention was to pour petrol [on him] and burn him alive. Three of our people were injured in that rescue so the situation is not good at all,” the pastor said.

“The police officer who was on duty said there is nothing they can do to help because the community is angry and many of the police cannot handle them.”

Response from SAPS

North West SAPS spokesperson Brigadier Sabata Mokgwabone confirmed “sporadic” attacks on Congolese foreign nationals in Zeerust, with the first incident being reported on Sunday. 

“At this stage, cases of assault, attempted murder, malicious damage to property have been opened, but no arrests have been made,” Mokgwabone said.

“The Congolese went to the police station to meet with the station management to raise their concerns. The police are intervening including through meetings with both the Congolese and South Africans.”

Mokgwabone said police were monitoring the situation, which on Thursday had been relatively quiet. The SAPS did not respond to a request to comment on claims that police officers witnessed the attacks on migrants but did not intervene.

On Thursday, representatives from the South African Red Cross Society, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), and the South African Human Rights Commission were in Zeerust to assess the situation and provide assistance.

Zakes Neti, from the North West branch of the Red Cross, described it as a “very unfortunate situation”.

“When we ask the [South African] community members what are the reasons for this, they just say they [Congolese community] must leave town, and their [Congolese] businesses are currently closed,” he said.

Neti said the Red Cross had not been able to assess how many individuals had been affected by the violence.

“According to their leader here, there are 150 people who are affected and those who are injured are between 10 and 12 individuals,” he said. 

Some of the people affected have fled the area and their whereabouts are unknown.

“We are providing telephone calls for them to call their families and establish their whereabouts. For now, that is all we can assist with and going forward we will see what else they need,” said Neti. 

Triggers for xenophobia 

Xenowatch, a tool monitoring xenophobic discrimination across South Africa, developed by the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, found that from 2008 to 2021 there were 394 deaths and 944 incidents related to xenophobic violence.

The violence is often triggered by a shrinking economy and rising unemployment. What exacerbates the situation is the lack of response and denialism from the government on issues associated with these challenges. 

A study by the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria found that while some immigrants do commit crimes in South Africa, there is a widely held public perception that they contribute an inordinate amount to the overall crime levels — a perception that is partly fuelled by populist statements made by politicians. However, there is no statistical relationship between international migration in South Africa and crime.

“There is also no evidence that most immigrants commit crimes or are responsible for most crimes in the country,” the study found. 

Livelihoods at stake

Members of the foreign community in Zeerust are living in fear and are unable to work.

“All the men have been sleeping outside to try and protect our families. They are treating us like animals and there is nothing we can do,” said one person.

“Yesterday we did not open our doors because when we open our shop they can do something to us and we are afraid because we cannot even run to the police because they refuse to help us.

“If we cannot work, hunger will kill us all in this house.”

The pastor said that a Congolese woman was told to close her salon and that all Congolese businesses in Zeerust should remain closed until next year.

“We don’t know how we will be able to survive without work,” said the pastor.

“It’s our plea for you to come help us, we need a peaceful place. Zeerust is no longer peaceful for us. These kinds of attacks have happened before and it is happening again. Please help Congolese in Zeerust.” DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Ben Harper says:

    Proudly brought to you by the anc and eff

  • Jan Man says:

    I hope they took photo’s of the police that refused to hep. Then Cele will know who to promote.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    My question is why do the police do nothing but stand and watch and laugh? This seems to be a characteristic whenever there is looting or public violence. Another thing… Given that the South Africans themselves commit a phenomenal number of rapes it’s curious they should blame anyone else.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    This is a symptom of failure of our government.

    You know what you need to DA now.

    • Joe Lethuli says:

      Our electoral system is the biggest drawback that fails us. Replacing one monster by another will yield zero results. Voting for another political party, and they then send few of them to the conference wherein Bathabile’s ilk will be brought back, and then expect an improvement is foolish, to say the least.

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