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The day some immigrants joined in the looting in South Africa

By Lulu Brenda Harris and Khanyile Mlotshwa

In a gray low-quality video, he boasts aloud in ChiShona, Zimbabwe’s most widely spoken language: “We have looted,” he says aloud. “We have everything here.”

The unidentified man’s self-recorded video emerged on Zimbabwean social media spaces at the height of the wide-scale looting in South Africa’s KwaZulu and Gauteng provinces.

The man claimed to be in KwaZulu Natal.

When former South African president Jacob Zuma handed himself in to start serving his sentence for contempt of court in July 2021, his agitated supporters blockaded roads, disrupting traffic especially the cross-border trucks.

As criminal elements and genuinely hungry and poor people joined in the mayhem, the malls were targeted, ransacked and at times set on fire.

A number of sources have confirmed immigrants’ involvement in the looting and attempts to smuggle some of the goods out of the country.

However, although official sources remain adamant if any of the goods found their way to Zimbabwe, the proliferation of illegal entry points in the porous border between the two countries point to that possibility.

When people’s anger burst

The Zimbabwean government confirmed that indeed some Zimbabweans were involved in the widespread looting which the South African government characterised as a coup attempt.

Deputy Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet (Presidential Communications), George Charamba, said the Zimbabwean government was clear in condemning their nationals’ participation in the looting.

“We pronounced eloquently that we abhorred the unlawful conduct of some Zimbabweans,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s opposition Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU)’s then Deputy Secretary for International Relations (now Treasurer General), Future Msebele, who is based in Johannesburg said Zimbabwean immigrants could have participated in the looting because they are now embedded in South African society.

“What is unfortunate is that those who have been targeted before, that is the foreign nationals whose shops have been looted in all acts of xenophobia, they now also get to be involved in such acts of criminality,” he said.

“It is unfortunate that people will go to the extreme but we also need to recognise that they have been integrated into South African society so they participate in what their new societies do at any given time.

“As a political party, we have not received or conducted a study to say how many immigrants were involved in the looting or not. However, what we can say is that immigrants have been adopted by South African communities and have been integrated into the South African communities.

“This affects the community in two ways. The immigrants can help in building a vibrant, peaceful and prosperous society. Or the immigrants can adopt the culture prevailing at that time and do what the society does.”

Two sources, long distance kombi drivers between Bulawayo and Johannesburg commonly known as omalayitsha, confirmed the arrest of a bus crew alleged to have been carrying looted goods.

Despite the numerous illegal entry points between the two countries’ border, the sources em

phasised the difficulties of transporting looted goods.

Voice of one cross border transporter (umalayitsha)

“People could have participated in looting because they wanted money,” one of the drivers said. “They loot and sell the looted goods so that they get easy money. They could have met with some difficulties in sending the goods home because, at that time, there was word that omalayitsha should not carry looted goods. We agreed that we should insist on asking for receipts for the goods. At least that is what the drivers I know agreed on. You might never know with others because we are not the same in how we handle our business.”

Another driver said the issue of receipts was more on large furniture goods and not groceries.

“At the time of the looting I was at home but I am dead sure that omalayitsha did not carry these looted goods for fear of being arrested like the bus crew,” he said.

“What I know is that in terms of furniture and other bigger stuff, omalayitsha were demanding receipts. They completely refused to carry any such big stuff without a receipt.

“However, it is possible that they could have carried looted groceries by mistake. The problem with groceries is that these small Asian shops don’t give receipts. Someone might be buying their groceries from them and stock piling so that they send home later on such that there is no way to know if at all the goods were looted or not.

Omalayitsha are afraid to carry any bigger goods. If there are any with furniture and other such bigger stuff, I am sure they are hiding it, because it is hard to transport such goods.”

Some Zimbabweans living in Hillbrow, Berea, Yeoville and other inner-city spaces in Johannesburg confirmed that in the days of the looting there was a proliferation of some of their countrymen selling goods that could have been looted.

“It was clear they wanted to get rid of the stuff and get money,” one Zimbabwean living in Yeoville said. “The prices were ridiculously low, even lower than the prices that omarobane (shoplifters) usually sell their loot.”

Charamba said the conduct of the Zimbabwean nationals who participated in the looting was simply “unlawful.”

“They had no grievance or dispute in the South African political question. Zimbabweans were supposed to be good guests, and not to abuse their hosts,” he said.

 “They said they are going there for employment, so they must do employment, not to start looting. They don’t do that here, that’s the gist of the matter.”

The government of Zimbabwe did not receive any complaints from their South African counterparts over this looting.

“It is not for the South African government to say but we must wait for legal processes to take course. This is not for the government to deliberate, it’s for the courts,” Charamba said.

“It is after that, can we then interact and if legal processes start, they (looters) must face the music, as they would have if they did it here.

“We saw videos, heard people speaking in Shona, which showed they were Zimbabwean nationals and we advised them it was not their business, and that it was an unlawful practice against their host.

“Clearly some Zimbabweans broke the law of their host country and we were actuated to issue statements. Just now some cases are getting into trial, we must not run ahead of the judiciary.”

Zimbabwe Community in South Africa Chairperson, Ngqabutho Nicholas Mabhena, said they did not receive any reports of looting by Zimbabweans.

“We didn’t receive any information but that does not mean that there are no Zimbabweans involved,” he said.

Leader of the African Diaspora Global Network, Dr Vusumuzi Sibanda, confirmed that some Zimbabweans have been arrested in relation to the looting in July 2021.

“We can confirm for sure that there are a number of Zimbabweans that are in custody for public violence and looting related issues,” Sibanda, also an immigration lawyer, said.

“Indeed, we have people in court that we are representing that have been arrested in some cases for looting, public violence, although of course they were not caught with anything.

“We are not completely saying that they were looting because most of them were arrested without any proof that indeed they were looting. They were just arrested at malls where looting had taken place. In that case, we give them the benefit of the doubt.”   

Sibanda said there were, however, reasonable grounds to believe that Zimbabwean immigrants were involved in looting in South Africa though it would be hard to say with certainty if they smuggled some of the looted goods into their home country.

“I mean, we even saw on social media a lot of stories circulating where vehicles were said to be getting into Zimbabwe with looted goods,” he said. 

“There was even a video of goods stocked in a truck somewhere in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe’s second largest city) that were said to have been looted in South Africa. Without verification, it is hard to know what is the truth.

“We also did see some video footage where we saw people speaking in ChiShona saying that they have been looting. We think those people are Zimbabweans, if not Mozambicans. This is because in Mozambique they also speak a similar language.”

Mabhena said his organisation did not receive any direct reports on the Zimbabweans involvement in the looting in South Africa.

“We saw videos of individuals speaking a Zimbabwean language, drinking beer which was said to have been looted,” he said.

“Beyond the videos that we saw circulating on social media, we don’t have reports of incidents where Zimbabweans participated in the looting.

“We also saw videos of a bus that was alleged to have been carrying goods looted in South Africa. The driver and conductor were all arrested. We could not follow up to verify if indeed the goods were looted. We didn’t authenticate the videos because we lack the capacity.”

The leaders of the Zimbabwean diaspora community were clear that the law must take its course on those immigrants found to have participated in criminality during the looting and protests in July 2021.

Sibanda said the African Diaspora network does not condone an act of criminality and called upon the South African government to act with a firm legal hand.

“Our position as an organisation is that we will not condone an act of criminality being perpetuated by Zimbabwean citizens or migrants in general,” he said. “We are saying those that have committed any crime must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We are not apologetic about that position. We have always said the government of South Africa must prosecute all criminals and must not persecute migrants. It is persecution where criminality is only attributed to Zimbabweans or migrants.”

Msebele concurred the law must not be gentle with immigrants found to have participated in the criminality of July 2021.

“Those who were involved in looting should be prosecuted whether they are foreign nationals, whether they are South Africans, Zimbabweans or whatever nationality, they must be prosecuted,” he said.

“If anyone is involved in acts of criminality, they have to be prosecuted.”

This investigative article was done with the support of the Henry Nxumalo Foundation in partnership with the Wits Centre for Journalism.

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