Sharpening the Pangas?: Understanding and Preventing Future Pogroms

by Michael Schmidt

The 2008 Pogroms shattered the illusion among many Leftists – despite numerous early warning signs – that South Africa’s poor was an essentially undifferentiated class of the righteously angry oppressed. The killing spree left 62 people dead, 670 wounded, more than 100,000 displaced and 35,000 languishing in displacee camps. Although most of the dead were foreigners, 21 were South Africans – demonstrating that all of the victims were seen as “outsiders” in one way or another by those wielding the panga’s [1] (machetes). Some of the killers used the unrest as an excuse to settle personal scores; some were driven by ethnic hatred, others by calculated greed. A year ago, in September 2009, I travelled to four townships around Gauteng, three of which had seen pogroms in 2008 (Atteridgeville, Tembisa and Jeppestown) and one of which had not (Soweto), speaking to community activists and to survivors of the 2008 attacks to try and take the temperature at the grassroots regarding “outsiders,” in other words, had the threat of killings receded? After all, for the first week of the 2008 killings, the authorities sat back and cynically watched the damage being done, assessing, perhaps, xenophobia’s usefulness in future as a divide-and-rule strategy. The bad news is the ugly fact that many in our townships believe another pogrom is being planned for sometime after the World Cup, now that the world’s eyes are turned elsewhere. So how did the original Pogroms flourish – and how can they be stopped in future?

Sharpening the pangas?


I first interviewed Serge Lwamba and Benjamin Simunyola of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), an umbrella grouping of African migrant communities which had settled in South Africa. The ADF was established in July 2010 as a direct organisational response by migrants to the attacks on their communities. Lwamba hails from Lubumbashi in the south-eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and held me spellbound with his harrowing tale of how he came to settle in South Africa. His family owned a big restaurant in the city, but Lwamba had been active in student opposition politics and was forced to flee in with his brother and mother when rebels entered the city. His brother died of an illness during their difficult escape from the DRC, weaving back and forth trying to avoid being shanghaied by the various rebel armies, finally entering Zambia months later. Lwamba was clearly deeply affected by the things he had seen during the DRC war: “Imagine a young boy with an AK-47 and a man’s private parts hanging around his neck like a necklace, saying he wants to sleep with your mother! The rebels have no morality,” he said, shaking with rage. Eventually, he entered South Africa in 2001 – but had been battling ever since then with the Home Affairs authorities to establish his refugee status. In the meantime, he could not get a job and was unable to travel to visit his girlfriend in Lesotho. Simunyola on the other hand hails from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and came to South Africa in 2004 to visit his sisters who had settled here in 1991. His journey had been far easier than Lwamba’s – but he said he joined the ADF because he had seen the misery in United Nations refugee camps in Zambia.

Soweto had proved to be an island of calm during the 2008 Pogroms and I wanted to try and find out why, so I accompanied Lwamba and Simunyola to the taxi rank opposite the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital where many migrants run shops and pavement stalls. There I interviewed, among others, Mohamed Khurae, a Pakistani national who had been living in the war-torn Kashmir region – on the Indian side of the border. His presence as a Pakistani living in Indian Kashmir had seriously threatened his life so he felt he had little to fear in South Africa. “I arrived here only two months ago and got this job helping out at this store. I have an asylum-seeker permit and now live in Robertsham.” A Bangladeshi man interviewed said he and his brother had fled his country for political reasons three years ago and settled in South Africa where they were waiting for their refugee status to be confirmed. “I talk with my mother on the phone, but it is hard because I can never return home”. It seems that the very heterogenous nature of much of Soweto, where so many migrants from different countries, as well as so many refugees from dangers at home and abroad gather, managed to prevent Sowetan residents from succumbing to pogromists’ sharp-edged appeals to indulge in violent chauvinism.


But that was clearly not the case in other townships where the blood had flowed unchecked. I traveled to Atteridgeville, the township west of Pretoria, then headed south into its sprawling outlying squatter camps. I was headed for one in particular, nicknamed “Jeffsville,” after the local strongman, Jeff Ramotladi, who had been among those who started the settlement in 1991. Ramotladi is alleged to have led the expulsion of foreigners from that part of Atteridgeville – but I must stress that I have no evidence to support this other than the circumstance that his powerful position in the community implies a degree of control over what happens there. I was accompanied by Watson Nxele, chairperson of the Atteridgeville Community Policing Forum, and Ernest Tshabhuyo, secretary of the Atteridgeville Civic Organisation, both of which had pitted themselves against Ramotladi’s own township organisation. Ramotladi’s career is instructive in tracing the decay of many “liberators” especially members of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at local level from warlordism into sheer gangsterism. This is not to say that the ANC did not murder its way into power in certain areas – the former Azapo stronghold of Dlamini in Soweto comes to mind – but the warlords of the anti-apartheid struggle often had justification for their violent defence of their turf. In the bad old days, Ramotladi was a member of the ANC-allied SA National Civics Organisation (Sanco) who “ran the kangaroo courts,” dispensing summary street justice, Tshabhuyo said. “He was arrested many times [by the apartheid authorities] therefore he got followers.” Ramotladi set himself up in business selling water in the thirsty squatter camp while gambling on the side; that was the start of his little shackland empire as a shebeen-owner, butchery-owner then ANC ward councillor, his makeshift office increasingly controlling the trade in goods, jobs, services and plots of land in “Jeffsville”. In later years, Ramotladi was to split from the ANC, standing against it as an independent, backed, it is said, by Indian business associates from nearby Laudium. But although his grip on “Jeffsville” is said to have waned, he is still strong enough to prevent the relocation of the squatters to new premises – a move he knows will break up his power base. In “Jeffsville” I met Tshabhuyo’s staff members Grace Chanaka, Sammy Botolo and Godfrey Mashigo. I was then taken on a tour of the settlement by Botolo and Mashigo to interview resident migrants – the two guides stressing that it was still dangerous for outsiders to be on the streets of the settlement unaccompanied. Among those interviewed were spaza-shop owner Shepherd Tungamirai of Gweru, Zimbabwe, who had returned to “Jeffsville” in 2009 after his previous store had been looted in 2008 with the loss of stock worth R4,000. He said those who attacked him were still around: “They shop here! They can smile to you, but they are biased. They say after the World Cup, they’ll do it again. I don’t feel safe,” he said. I was then shown a bare concrete slab where another store belonging to a foreigner had been burned down and not rebuilt (ironically, the remaining wall had been sprayed with graffiti: “Revolution Park”). Another of those I spoke to, Osman Ahmed, of Mogadishu, Somalia, said he fled the war in his country to settle in South Africa five years ago. But in May 2008, he was forced to flee from Diepsloot north of Johannesburg when armed gangs attacked his supermarket; he lost stock worth R100,000 (US$13,344) and his two South African employees lost their jobs. Ahmed said although he had an SA Code 10 drivers’ license he had been forced to work in the retail sector because no-one would employ him without an SA identity document. Now he wants to return home to Mogadishu; even though it is one of the deadliest cities in the world, his wife and children are there and he feels South Africa is unwelcoming: “You can’t trust South Africa,” he said. Jeffsville remains Ramotladi’s stronghold – he was cynically placed in charge of the reintegration of foreigners who had been chased away in 2008, getting paid by the municipality, at ratepayer’s expense, for his “services”.


On a visit to the Jeppestown / Cleveland area east of downtown Johannesburg which had been blighted by attacks in 2008 (including assaults on poor whites), guided by Flavien Gagoum of the ADF, I interviewed resident migrants including Tino – he did not want his surname used – of Nigeria who had arrived in February 2009 despite hearing of the 2008 attacks. He’d even recently married a South African woman. “For any little trouble they [South Africans] call you makwerekwere [an insulting term mocking the speech of foreigners]. “I don’t understand: we all have to travel; I came here to survive. In Benin where I travelled, there is no such thing as xenophobia, even though I don’t speak French. In Nigeria there are even South Africans and we don’t ask them for their papers except at the airport. South Africa is a nice country and I love staying here, but somehow as foreigners we are scared… scared for after the 2010 World Cup.” Elsie Tandabantu (38) of Chipinge, Zimbabwe, said she had been in South Africa since 2007. She had been in Milnerton, Cape Town, when she fell victim to the 2008 Pogroms. “I had a hair salon; they burned it and harassed me where I lived. I lost my equipment, TV, DVD and a lot of things. It’s a nice country, but I don’t want to be here – yet I have to survive. I came here as a border-jumper, but now I use asylum[-seeker] papers.” Tandabantu told me that she knew of a house that was owned by a foreign woman whose late husband had been a South African and who had left the property to her. But she had been expelled from the house by thugs during last year’s attacks – and had been unable to return since. These thugs, it seemed, operated within a power vacuum created when local councillors, as is often the case, went AWOL, moved to other areas and drew salaries at ratepayers’ expense, but were never on hand to deal with community concerns and conflicts. This absenteeism, combined with a failure to deliver on services already paid for via tax is behind many of the protests that are sweeping the poor areas of the country. Which is why the elites appear to encourage the diversion of class anger into xenophobia, racism and chauvinism. To find out how such political vacuums developed, I travelled to Tembisa where I met Doug Scholz, the ANC ward councillor for Reiger Park, Boksburg, and former ward councillor of the Ramaphosa informal settlement which witnessed much of the worst of the 2008 violence. It was the sickening images of Mozambican immigrant and Ramaphosa resident Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave being burned to death in broad daylight which seared the Pogroms into the mind’s eye of the world. Scholz and a colleague took me to the Madelakufa informal settlement in Tembisa where I interviewed resident migrants. Scholz claimed that the ineffectiveness of the Democratic Alliance (DA) ward councillor, whose area included Ramaphosa but who had been “too afraid” to enter the township, had led to the rise of an informal group of unelected leaders who had targeted Mozambicans – most of them long-time residents – because of their success in business. “Mozambicans have lived here on the mining belt for a hundred years, but in the 1990s when the migration law fell away, many settled here, started businesses and raised children,” Scholz said. So it was business competition and not “ethnic tension” that had made the Mozambicans a target. Scholz may have been politically motivated to slag off the opposition party predecessor, but his story rings true as much of the country languishes in a twilight zone where the poor are blatantly ignored by the authorities between elections. “A march 5,000-strong to the Ekurhuleni Municipality complained that they had not seen the councillor in a year.” The results of this neglect are often painful in a very personal way. At Madelakufa, shopkeeper Elijah Mhlangu, a South African, grieved over his Mozambican wife who had fled back to her country after the attacks, never to return: “She’s too afraid for her life. I miss her,” he sighed.


But not all resident migrants were fearful and resigned. At Madelakufa, I also interviewed Paul Nhanguva (40), of Beira, Mozambique, who said he had tracked down, confronted and forced an embarrassed confession out of neighbours who had looted his store last year: “I told them ‘what you did wasn’t good,’ and they apologised.” Nhanguva hails from generations of Mozambicans who worked on the mines here, including his grandfather, father and uncle. He has lived in South Africa since 1993 and is now naturalised as a citizen. “I am not afraid. If I have done something wrong, come to me and tell me. If [the attackers] knew what they are doing to their own future, they won’t do it again. I have lived through two wars [in Mozambique] and can go without food for five days, but they have never seen war. They are like children playing with matches – and they will burn their own house down!” It was a passionately-argued and sobering polemic. In Alexandra township, east of Johannesburg, a picture emerged of at least one community that shared Nhanguva’s indomitable spirit, standing up to the killers and stepping into the breach vacated by the “democratic” state. Comparing Alexandra Section 2, known as “Beirut” and Section 5, known as “Setswala,” Jean-Pierre Misago of Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Programme, co-author of a the report for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) on the Pogroms, said Beirut had succumbed to the Pogroms while Setswala had fended off attempts by the pogromists to spark killings in their neighbourhood. “The Section 5 community comrades met the Section 2 pogromists at the border of Section and told them ‘no, you can’t come in here; we will sort out our own foreigners, because you don’t know who they are’.” You can bet the Setswala reception committee was armed to the teeth, to back up their ploy, but it worked, keeping the killers at bay while Setswala’s foreigners were helped to leave town quickly, while their vigilant neighbours kept watch over their homes to ensure no-one looted them. Perhaps the difference lies in the old fault lines between the worker hostels which have always been a source of conflict between workers dominated by conservative indunas, and residents of the township proper who have a reputation for being more progressive. But the lesson is clear: when communities stood together, they managed to prevent the pogroms from spreading. I’m reminded of the small, though overwhelmed, community resistance in many parts of Rwanda during the 1994 Genocide. Yet another lesson is clear: murderous attacks on foreigners such as Somali shopkeepers and “outsiders” such as township lesbians long predated the 2008 Pogroms – and still continue in many areas, albeit at a low level of intensity. So it is the responsibility of community activists to take the lead in building community defence to such attacks by mobilising their neighbours and enforcing the unacceptability of such actions. They must raise the alarm and document all relevant incidents so that our people are aware of the changing patterns of xenophobia and be forewarned when another pogrom – such as the one predicted by many township residents for after the World Cup – is being planned. But community defence must go beyond mere moral encouragement: it must firstly be strongly armed,[2] with legal firearms not just knives and clubs, to meet force with force; secondly it must prepare in advance safe zones that operated like Setswala in Alexandra, where those in danger are sheltered and where pogromists fear to tread; and thirdly, it must establish local networks like the street committees of the anti-apartheid struggle to gather intelligence and co-ordinate actions. The radical and progressive social movements must be prepared to physically face down any pogromists sharpening their pangas in anticipation of an unimpeded bloodletting and looting spree in future. Just as the anarchist Black Ranks militia fought alongside the communist Red Guards against Nazi thugs on the streets of Germany in the 1920s, we must prepare ourselves for action and our watchword will be the fierce anti-fascist cry:

They shall not pass!


  1. “Panga” is the South African term for a long, flat cane-cutting blade like a machete that is sometimes used as a weapon
  2. Because of the difficulty for poor and working class people to legally obtain firearms, owing to gun control laws which in effect deny the poor the right to defend themselves because the state demands a permanent residential address; the difficulty of installing a mounted gun safe (a requirement to legally obtaining a firearm) in a shack, the structure of which does not support such a device; and the high costs both of gun safes and legal firearms – one possible way for working class and poor people to get around this could be for the community to pool their money and buy legal guns in the name of someone trusted from and within the community for use by the community’s defence committees. Someone who can install a safe in their home and meets all the state requirements to legally owning a firearm.