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'How Can They Kill Us Like Chickens?': Pitched Battles Erupt in Durban After Weeks of Xenophobic Attacks

South African police clashed with warring groups of locals and foreigners on a day intended to promote peace and an end to the violence that has killed at least five people and forced thousands to flee to "refugee" camps.

by Ruth MacLean
Apr 17 2015, 11:50am

Photos by Caelin Roodt

Riots and pitched battles between foreigners and locals erupted on the streets of Durban on Thursday night, on a day intended to promote peace and an end to the xenophobic attacks in South Africa that have killed at least five people.

Riot police charged gangs of looters — and the Congolese, Mozambican and Zimbabwean nationals standing up to them — with guns, tear gas, water cannons that fired blue ink and stun grenades. Taking aim round street corners, spraying rubber bullets and arresting several members of a machete-waving crowd, they managed to push back the battle lines a street at a time.

Even in the face of rifle-wielding police, the foreigners stood their ground, waving golf clubs, planks of wood and "knobkerries" — South African clubs — or any weapons they could find. Durban's foreign African population mostly lives in the center and, after days of attacks by angry South Africans, they were determined to defend their turf, and getting used to the idea that no help was on its way.

"Where is the government? Where is the UN? They're supposed to protect us — are they just in their offices?" a Congolese man who wished to be identified only as Moses told VICE News. "How can you tell a Congo refugee to go back to the country he's running from?"

"I've been here for 13 years — it's really my home," said Admire Savanhu, a Zimbabwean. "I've got a small business here — everything. It's beyond hate. My black South African brothers want to harm me. It's the enemy at work."

'We love South Africa but we don't know what happened. ...This past two days I'm scared someone will come to kill me.'

Police have arrested 74 people in the three weeks of escalating violence. Although five people have been confirmed killed, some estimates put the death toll much higher — some as high as 30. One of the dead, a teenage boy of 14, is known to have been shot four times — though it is not clear by whom.

Much of the blame for the attacks has been laid at the feet of the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who told a gathering last month that foreigners should "take their bags and go" back to their countries.

He stoked xenophobia that has been bubbling for years, but that previously spilled over into attacks in the townships, not the rioters' current target of the city's central business district. Local South Africans frequently complain that foreigners take their jobs and undercut them, offering to do work for a lower salary. With record-breaking unemployment levels in the country, this is becoming more and more of an issue.

Chanting "foreigners get out," small groups of dancing and jeering South Africans grew and grew in number on Thursday, until police appeared to chase them down the street towards their enemy — a crowd of angry Congolese men.

"How can this happen? How can they kill us like chickens?" asked Moses. "We are innocent, and they come with their sticks and stones."

"We love South Africa but we don't know what happened," said his friend, Welcome. "This past two days I'm scared someone will come to kill me."

Thousands of people have fled their homes in the city and are hiding out, either in one of several impromptu "refugee" camps set up in Durban's distant suburbs, or with families in town who have agreed to shelter and conceal them.

On Thursday in Chatsworth refugee camp, guarded by the authorities, people waited behind the chicken wire in a long line in the rain for food, then ate it quickly standing up. There appeared to be around 2,000 people at the camp — seemingly far more than could comfortably sleep under its blue tarpaulins.

Some governments are pulling out their citizens. Mozambique and Malawi have sent buses to collect hundreds of their stranded countrymen and bring them home.

Two buses full of Mozambicans left Chatsworth camp on Thursday afternoon, but many more were left behind, unable to retrieve their possessions from houses that remain at the heart of the fighting, and unsure whether they had been looted or not.

Meanwhile the small businesses were bearing the brunt of the widespread robbing.

"They were getting into the shops, stealing everything. They're really crazy," Sumeya Mohammed, a shopkeeper in central Durban told VICE News, peering out at the street outside her store through the gaps in a metal grille as dozens of young men sprinted past. Her elderly mother had come to sit with her — otherwise she would have been alone in the shop to fend off attackers.

She described a bizarre new looting tactic she had witnessed several times — rioters grabbing women's gold earrings out of their ears, sometimes ripping their earlobes, before swallowing them "for safekeeping".

"This town is terrible. It's finished," said Mohammed. "Before, you could walk anywhere, but not now. We're standing our ground. We don't know what else to do."

Like many, she blamed the riots on the dominant tribe in the area, the Zulu, whom she said were lazy and violent. Tribal stereotypes and loyalties persist in South Africa.

"These Zulus refuse to work. Why can't the Zulus work like the foreigners? They work very hard. But the Zulus just want to steal from people," she said.

Meanwhile, the businesspeople say, the police side with the xenophobic locals and "just stand and watch" as they rampage.

The violence has spread to Johannesburg and Pretoria, both of which have already experienced their own spates of xenophobic violence in recent months and years. In 2008, 62 people were killed in a wave of attacks around Johannesburg. 

Scaremongering messages were passed round on social media, warning of an imminent genocide that, they vowed, would be worse than Rwanda's in 1994. One message read: "A train full of Zulus left Durban today, heading for Johannesburg and Pretoria. The men are armed and they are going to be killing any foreigner they meet tomorrow."

Vehicles were burned and businesses looted overnight in Jeppestown, an impoverished area of central Johannesburg, and a number of shops were torched on Friday morning. Rioters vowed they would not halt the attacks until all the foreigners had been chased away.

Durban's peace march was attended by several thousand people, many of whom were too young to remember life under apartheid, but nevertheless felt that the country was going back to the "bad old days" of two decades ago.

Yves Nlaba, hiding out in the city with his traumatised wife Anita after she was attacked, said he would be on a bus back to his war-torn home of the Democratic Republic of Congo like a shot, if it were free. "Here I'm not safe. In my country I'm safe," he said.

"It's very, very difficult for us. We've got nowhere to go. I don't know what to do... If they want us to go back, they're supposed to tell us — you can't just beat or kill someone."

Follow Ruth MacLean on Twitter: @ruthmaclean

All images by Caelin Roodt