South African looters target immigrant shops in Johannesburg area, exposing social tensions

South African authorities have re-established order — for now — in Soweto and other Johannesburg townships, after a week of looting of foreign-owned shops and violence in which four people were killed.

The 19-year-old mother of an infant who died after being trampled by a mob during the looting said she was accidentally caught in the street chaos. Some witnesses, however, said the mother was herself pillaging when she was knocked down with her baby strapped to her chest.

The dispute about the baby boy, Nqobile Majozi, echoes conflicting stories about what motivated some of the worst unrest in Soweto and nearby areas since protests swept the same districts before white racist rule ended in 1994. The casualty toll was higher during mass rallies and bloody, apartheid-era crackdowns, but the new upheaval raises concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment, the frustration of the poor and the government’s handling of social tensions.

In a separate incident, a truck carrying livestock overturned on a highway in the Johannesburg area last week, and people carrying knives and buckets descended on the injured cattle and slaughtered nearly three-dozen for their meat, according to Eyewitness News, a South African media outlet. The driver alleged that people on a bridge threw objects at his vehicle, causing it to crash.

Such episodes reflect the predicament of South Africa, a regional hub with gleaming infrastructure projects where many people nevertheless feel marginalized by high unemployment, a lack of opportunity and a gap between rich and poor that is starkly visible in leafy, spacious suburbs, on the one hand, and the shacks and so-called “matchbox” homes of the townships where blacks were confined under apartheid.

Soweto came under the world’s gaze in 1976 when it erupted in student-led protests. Parts of it are relatively affluent today, as malls, gyms and new homes attest. But poverty is still widespread. The violence there started Jan. 19 in an area called Snake Park when a Somali national allegedly shot and killed a 14-year-boy who was among a group of people attempting to break into his shop.

Crowds hit the streets, targeting immigrant-owned shops in riots recalling anti-foreigner violence in 2008 that killed about 60 people. President Jacob Zuma, who was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, instructed his government to restore order. Police arrested more than 160 people. Several people had been fatally shot by this past weekend, when the unrest abated.

Zanele Majozi, the mother of the baby who died, said she came across a crowd looting a so-called “spaza” shop, a type of informal store where township residents buy basic necessities so they don’t have to travel long distances to supermarkets and malls.

“I was watching them when a group of boys came running out of the shop with a crate,” Times LIVE, a news website, quoted Majozi as saying. “One of them knocked me down and I fell on my baby. Two more ran over me.”

But witness Phindile Shabangu said Majozi was caught in a stampede after emerging from the shop with eggs and drinks, and that the mother didn’t even notice her baby’s dire state while she was trying to pick up fallen items, according to Times LIVE.

“Blood was coming out of his ears, nose, mouth,” Shabangu told the news outlet. “The baby was messed up.”

Elsewhere, video footage showed looters loading stolen goods onto trucks, hopping over fences and ransacking shelves, sometimes in view of police. One clip showed a police vehicle parked outside a looted shop, and an officer apparently participating in the free-for-all. Also, schoolchildren attacked Pakistani-owned shops as they boarded a train for home, according to police.

A group representing immigrants said it believed the attacks were xenophobic and “not purely criminal,” as some officials have said. The Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa urged the government to approve hate crimes legislation that it said would curb a culture of “impunity.”

Prince Linda Dube, a 19-year-old Soweto resident, described immigrant shop-owners as “greedy,” arguing that they undermine locally owned shops.

“They are taking job opportunities,” he said. “It’s better if they hire our local people to help them out.”


Associated Press journalist Thomas Phakane in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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South African looters target immigrant shops in Johannesburg area, exposing social tensions
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