‘COPS TOLD US TO LOOT’
Police officers allegedly watched and, in some cases, encouraged Soweto residents to clear out foreign-owned shops
Foreign shop owners, looters and witnesses to the looting this week in Gauteng have described how police stole goods and helped others raid the shops during the worst attacks on foreigners South Africa has seen in seven years.
An estimated 120 foreign-owned or foreign-run shops were looted in Soweto and nearby Kagiso this week. Foreigners have described how some police officers told them to “go back to where you come from”, demanded bribes to do their jobs and helped themselves to goods on the shelves, including airtime and cooldrinks.
Widespread reports of criminal and xenophobic behaviour by some police officers tasked with stopping the looting in Soweto fly in the face of statements made by Gauteng police commissioner Joel Mothiba and Community Safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane that what took place in Soweto during the course of the week was “criminal and not xenophobic”.
While looting was continuing in Soweto on Thursday, Mothiba told a press conference that the situation was “under control”.
Yesterday, 10 young Soweto residents in different parts of the township, who admitted to taking part in the looting, told City Press that the police had helped them do it.
Zondi residents Charlie Masondo and Tshepo Radiapeng said they watched as police instructed looters to queue outside a foreign-owned shop and allowed four of them in at a time to prevent a stampede.
“I have never seen something like cops helping people to steal,” said Radiapeng. Masondo said he was shocked. “I was expecting the cops to stop the looters from stealing, but they allowed and organised them to do it. All they kept on saying was that people should not vandalise the shops,” he said.
A group of young people in Zola North recounted how they looted the Sea Point general dealer in their neighbourhood.
“We took everything. This was a fully fledged shop. There was everything here. There were six double-door fridges used for soft drinks. We took everything.” One said the police looked on while they looted. “They were actually helping us. They were driving a Nissan 1400 bakkie. They actually came back to look for what might have remained on Friday.”
One of the other young men, who declined to be named, showed City Press one of fridges they had looted. It has already been sold to a new owner.
Next to Sea Point, there is a shop owned by a South African. It was not plundered. All foreign-owned tuck shops in Zola North were closed this week.
Foreign shop owners to whom City Press spoke on Friday told of how, in some cases, police officers refused to protect their shops, and instead helped those who were looting.
Somali shop owner Ismail Adam (29), who ran a shop in Slovoville, Soweto, said he and his brother hid in the toilet after looters struck at about 5pm on Wednesday. The police arrived later.
“I saw mamas come and the police gave them bread. I asked them why they gave away this bread [because it] is my money. They told me: ‘You are nothing, brother. Keep quiet – if you talk too much, I’ll give your stock away, all of it,’” said Adam.
“Even other police, I saw them come in the shops. They took Grandpa headache powder and airtime – everything. When we left, they said: ‘My friend, come here. Give us money for cool drink.’ I said I didn’t have money. They told me that if I didn’t give them money, they would leave. I gave him R200.
“There were five police cars. When the police were there, people were stealing. Police were standing there watching.”
Shukri Abdullahi (42), a shopkeeper in Meadowlands, Soweto, said looters assaulted her at the entrance to her shop in front of the police, who did nothing.
“When I asked for assistance, the police said I can go back to where I come from. There were a lot of people and they beat me up – the police did nothing.”
Fatima Hasan (27), whose brothers ran a shop in Slovoville, which was looted on Wednesday night, went to help them the next morning.
“I fell and hurt my leg because I ended up running away. The police abuse us because we are foreigners, they tell us to go away. They tell me: ‘You come here to make money in our South Africa.’ This is the fifth time this is happening to me, what can we do now? Even when we go to the clinic, sometimes they tell us to go back to our country.”
At an urgent meeting between Gauteng Premier David Makhura and foreign shop owners, which was attended by Gauteng Transport MEC Ismail Vadi, in Mayfair, Johannesburg, yesterday, Makhura reiterated the government line that this week’s action was “criminal and not xenophobic”.
He also assured shop owners that government and the police would do all they could to protect them and stop the anarchy.
“The indiscriminate looting in the shops is something we have condemned. We have told the police to find the looters, and already 160 people have been arrested,” Makhura said. “What we saw in Soweto was not xenophobia, but criminal activity. And crime must be dealt with as crime because crime has no colour, class or gender.”
This week, a police officer was filmed apparently participating in looting in Dobsonville, Soweto.
City Press has learnt that a multidisciplinary task team, made up of the police’s tactical response team, public order policing units, detectives, crime intelligence and visible policing units has been established to find the instigators behind the unrest
Police spokesperson Solomon Makgale said on Friday night that a 13-month-old baby was trampled to death by looters in Kagiso.
“While people were looting one spaza shop, police arrived. The looters scattered. As they fled, some ran into a woman in her early 20s carrying a baby. In that commotion, the baby fell and was trampled by the fleeing mob. A case of murder is being investigated by Kagiso detectives,” he said.
In response to allegations of police collusion in the looting, Makgale said they knew of one case and had “taken the appropriate action in response”.
“There is absolutely nothing of this sort that has been brought to our attention. If there is evidence to corroborate these allegations, then we will certainly look into them and take action.”
Makgale said it was a pity that City Press decided to report a story containing “wild allegations” with “no shred of evidence”.
“Just because one police officer was shown on video looting, it does not mean every police officer who was out there was involved. If this story is published, then it will go down as the worst form of journalism I have ever seen,” he said.
Meanwhile, SA Spaza & Tuckshop Association president Rose Nkosi, whose organisation represents more than 3 000 stores around the country, said government should use the eviction of foreigners from Soweto as an opportunity to create jobs for local unemployed youth.
“These people are given spaces, but locals don’t have good places to sell. How do foreigners get good spots? That’s my first question, because we have officials at the border gates. How are these people coming in just like this?” she said at the home of 14-year-old Mthetheleli Mahori, whose death on Monday sparked the looting.
“We don’t want them back here, and the community has spoken. Rather let them go back to their countries and leave our country with freedom.”
Nkosi insisted that the spaza shops will reopen, “but only South Africans should run them”.
Meanwhile, City Press saw three elderly women begging police to allow them to buy bread for R9 as heavily armed police guarded a shop in Diepkloof.
One of the women, Victoria Mbambo, said she could not afford food from big retail shops because spazas sold cheaper goods.
“I know I will go hungry. Many others will go hungry. People do not think about tomorrow, they just think of today and come next week, they will be hungry and there won’t be anybody to give you food on credit like these people have been doing for years. That’s how many of us survive. What are we going to do now?”
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PATH OF PLUNDER Two women make off with goods stolen from a local spaza shop during the violence in Soweto this week