There’s an air of glee and abandon when the looting starts. South African police have been reported to stand by and watch – or even help – when township people attack the shops of foreign migrants and loot.
The looters break open doors, tear down walls, flood in and grab what they can.
The violence began last week, when a Somali shop owner, Alodixashi Sheikh Yusuf, pulled out a gun and confronted a group of youths who he said were attacking his shop in the Snake Park neighborhood of Soweto, apparently trying to rob him.
He fired, killing a 14-year-old, Siphiwe Mahori.
The killing triggered a wave of looting of foreign-owned shops and businesses owned by immigrants from Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malawi and elsewhere. Crowds of people surged into shops, looted the stock and in some cases burned the buildings down.
Some 120 shops were looted in several South African townships before police said the situation was under control late last week, and the government declared that the looting was “criminal,” but not xenophobic.
But violence erupted again Sunday night and early Monday, when foreign-owned shops were attacked in Alexandra township and an informal settlement known as Langlaate. A foreign shopkeeper shot dead two looters in Langlaate Sunday night, before fleeing, according to police. Angry local residents burned the shop down. Two foreign-owned shops in Alexandra township were attacked, one of them burned.
Human rights groups, organizations representing immigrants, and the South African Jewish Board of Deputies have all rejected the official line that the violence wasn’t aimed at foreigners. They have pointed out that shops owned by native South Africans were left undisturbed while foreign shops in townships were attacked.
South Africa has seen troubling violence against immigrants in recent years. In 2008, 62 people were killed in anti-foreigner violence in townships around Johannesburg, and thousands of people fled their homes to take shelter in police stations.
Six people have died and 178 have been arrested in the recent violence, and hundreds of immigrants have fled or gone into hiding.
One youth, Nhlanhla Monareng, was shot in Naledi township Wednesday when police fired into a crowd that had surrounded a shop owned by a Pakistani. A 74-year-old Malawian shopkeeper, Dan Mokwena, was attacked as he slept in his shop and killed.
In another incident, a baby, Nqoblie Majozi, was crushed in a crowd of looters. There were conflicting accounts about the incident. The child's mother, Zanele Majozi, 19, said a group of looters trampled her but witnesses accused her of joining the looters and emerging from the store with the baby strapped to her back, bloodied and lifeless.
Mob violence against foreigners flares up from time to time in South African townships, where poverty is rife and jobs scarce. South African shopkeepers often accuse foreign businesses of selling their goods too cheaply, undercutting the competition.
But according to immigrant groups, there have been dozens of attacks against foreign shopkeepers in recent years. The African Diaspora Forum wrote an open letter to South African President Jacob Zuma, complaining that the government had condoned anti-foreigner attacks through inaction.
"Despite the escalation of violence over the past six years causing numerous deaths, the government has denied that there is xenophobia, always questioning the nature of this violence and attributing it to ‘crime’, instead of recognising it for what it is: xenophobic violence," said the letter, released Sunday.
The group's spokesman, Marc Gbaffou, said in a television interview that there were attacks on foreign businesses "on a daily basis" in South Africa, but that they were widely ignored, "because maybe the life of foreigners is not important."
"One thing we know is that the government didn’t take the issue seriously,” he said.
South African Jewish Board of Deputies spokeswoman Charisse Zeifert issued a statement Monday, saying: "Despite attempts to characterize these xenophobic attacks as criminal in nature they are clearly hate crimes and must be treated as such."
“Scores of innocent people who came to our country in the hope of bettering their lot have been victimised and deprived of their livelihoods simply because they were born elsewhere,” she added.
The attacks have not targeted Jewish-owned businesses, but the Board of Deputies has been a leading voice against racism and anti-immigrant attacks.
South African media aired photographs of police walking away from a shop being looted, and in one case taking part.
A headline in the City Press newspaper Sunday said: “Cops told us to loot.” The article quoted looters in Soweto's Zondi neighborhood saying police helped them, and said that two residents described seeing police tell the looters to form an orderly line at a foreign-owned shop, then let people enter, four at a time, to prevent a stampede.
“I have never seen something like cops helping people to steal,” said one of the two, Tshepo Radiapeng.
“I was expecting the cops to stop the looters from stealing, but they allowed and organized them to do it,” said the other, Charlie Masondo. “All they kept on saying was that people should not vandalize the shops.”
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