JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – A Zimbabwean man was stoned and set alight by a mob in a South African township on Wednesday night during a fresh flare-up of anti-immigrant violence.
The brutal killing came just hours after police minister Bheki Cele visited Diepsloot, a suburb north west of Johannesburg, to pledge more police officers following complaints by locals of rampant crime, which they blame on foreigners.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Brenda Muridili said the mob went door-to-door in an area called Extension 1 at around 9PM demanding passports from foreigners.
“Reports that we’re getting from witnesses is that there’s a small group of people that went from door-to-door and then when they got to this house, this young man just ran out of the house and they chased him and unfortunately he was killed,” Muridili told the SABC.
“As soon as the police got that information, they rushed to the scene but when they got there, the people had already dispersed.”
Witnesses said the mob stoned Elvis Nyathi and then threw burning tyres over his body as he lay prostrate on the ground.
Tens of local residents had earlier marched to the local police station demanding stronger police action against crime, which they blamed on undocumented migrants.
Police minister Bheki Cele promised 60 more police officers and 16 vehicles but the pledges did little to calm the restive locals who barricaded roads with burning tyres before going on a search for foreigners.
Nyathi’s distraught widow Nomsa Tshuma said: “We were in a friend’s shack watching Uzalo on TV when we heard people knocking next door shouting ‘ID! Passport!’.
“We decided to run because he (her husband) does not have an ID or passport and I’m the only one that has a passport. I decided to go with him.
“We ran past some shacks and hid in a passage, just the three us. We sat there and heard people coming into the yard (that they lived in), waking up our neighbours.”
Tshuma said they heard someone running on top of a roof, probably being pursued.
“They found out that we were renting there and then they saw my husband and my friend. They didn’t see because I was lying down. My husband and my friend ran, and I returned to the shack where a group of people came asking where my husband’s gun is,” she told the SABC.
As she denied knowledge of a gun or that her husband owned one, Tshuma said she was repeatedly whipped. Then, the men asked her for R300.
“I told them I don’t work and I only have R50 on me. They took the money and left,” she said.
It was not until later that she got a call from a friend saying Nyathi was burned by the mob that chased after and caught up with him.
Once relegated to the margins of South African politics, anti-immigrant activism has gone mainstream. Several anti-immigrant groups including Operation Dudula, All Trucker Foundation and the South Africa First Party, have become reference points for national debate.
Reflecting forms of radical protectionism, they channel the frustrations of South Africans with corruption, crime, and unemployment. The results are campaigns to “clean” the country of immigrants, home invasions and widespread threats and violence.
Analysts say this is not a response to an immigration crisis – immigrant numbers are not higher than they have been for a decade – but they say it’s a crisis of constitutional credibility.
To finance their protest and political activities, the vigilante groups plunder foreign-owned shops and businesses. Like the self-financing armies of old, protesters are given license to loot. One leader reported that when protesters feel hungry, they go and get food from foreign owned shops to eat or take home to cook; and if the shops are closed they go to the next locations.
President Cyril Ramaphosa has lashed out at Operation Dudula and other groups, accusing them of stoking xenophobic tensions in South Africa.
“We can’t allow people to use vigilantism to deal with issues. We should not allow ourselves to be at war with those from other countries, unemployment must not do that to us. Those who set up organisation – such as Operation Dudula – are contravening the law. This can turn into outright xenophobia…,” Ramaphosa said in a March 21 speech.