11 LIVES IN 8 DAYS
A community is living in terror as a surge in brutal mob justice in Sondela in Rustenburg is being blamed on ethnic tension between Sothos and Xhosas
Rings of wire from a burnt tyre lie among rocks and black ash, marking the spot where a man burnt to death last Sunday night. It was a similar scene across the road in Sondela, a settlement of shacks and RDP houses near Rustenburg, where another man was killed.
The two were among 10 men and one woman killed last month, five of whom were killed last weekend. They died metres from each other, necklaced in what residents say is ethnically motivated violence.
On Friday in Sondela, situated behind mining giant Sibanye’s Jabula Shaft, the sight of children playing in the streets belied the tension and carnage. After several houses were torched and 11 lives lost in eight days, some are packing up and moving out. Nobody wanted to speak openly about what happened.
A woman walking past the spot where the men were killed tried hard not to be seen speaking to City Press.
“I still hear their voices as they screamed, begging for their lives,” she said.
“In no time they were engulfed in flames and they cried until their voices faded as the fire got stronger. We stayed behind closed doors, but still felt unsafe. Sleeping has become a problem these days because one never knows when they will pounce again.”
There’s another patch of blackened dirt next to the church at Sondela’s entrance. There, residents say, the owner of a panel-beating shop was dragged from his home and killed, also on Sunday night.
“Some of us have nowhere else to go. Sondela has been our home for years. We can only pray that those affected do not seek revenge,” one resident said.
Another said Sondela is known to be a crimeridden area where people are killed every weekend, but the recent murders were different and were carried out by a “mob”.
Last Saturday, a community meeting was called to discuss the crime wave.
One resident told City Press that complaints were raised that Sotho people committed the crimes, and it was decided that residents should come together to fight back.
“No decision was made to attack people, drag them out of their houses and burn them to death. But by the time this meeting took place, six people had already been killed in mob attacks carried out by Xhosa people,” the man said.
“It was quiet on Saturday evening and we all thought it was all over. It all changed on Sunday evening.”
A Lesotho national who works as a queue marshal at Rustenburg taxi rank said he had just got into bed in his shack in Sondela on Sunday when he heard footsteps outside.
“I could hear the steps of a large group and I went out to investigate only to see a huge group of shirtless men armed with spears and pangas walking down the street. I made sure they did not see me, but going back into the house was not an option. So I hid there, but one of them noticed me,” the man said.
“At the time, my neighbour was also there with me and we fled when they began to break the gate. We went into one of the yards and hid in large water tanks, and we could hear and see them search for us in toilets and everywhere.
“I stayed there and felt like they would hear my heart beating, but later on they left and we ran out of the area.”
Hours later, he called a neighbour to check what was happening.
“She was so relieved to hear my voice. She thought I had burnt to death in my shack, which has been torched,” he said.
“I do not know how we managed to escape and can only say it is through God’s grace. I may not have left my shack with anything before it was burnt to ashes, but I am lucky I am standing here sharing my story.”
The man said that, as he fled, he saw another group of more than 50 “armed and shirtless men” marching two people towards the sports grounds. He believes they were among those killed that night.
Another survivor told City Press that his brother and two friends were also killed on Sunday. The man, who is in hiding in Sondela, did not want to share his story.
While police won’t confirm the attacks were ethnically motivated, the locals believe Xhosas perpetrated them.
Another man who escaped attack on Sunday said he believed “they were roaming the streets looking for any male who is not speaking their language”.
“Before they broke the gate, they forced open my neighbour’s house and left when they realised it was a woman and children there. They told her to lock up and they left.”
Police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Sabata Mokgwabone said the motive for the killings was unclear and investigations were continuing. He said eight people had been arrested – five appeared in court on Thursday and Friday, while three are expected to appear tomorrow.
Sondela residents remain terrified.
“We go to bed every night not knowing who is next; who will be counted among the dead when we wake up. Sondela needs more police patrols throughout the night; maybe then we will feel safe again. We don’t know who is being targeted in these killings.”
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