“Uvikelwa ama poyisa mara sizokubamba foreigner ndini”

It was a repeat of last week’s story, police in the city, crowds gathering, traffic at a standstill and the cries of shopowners whose goods were destrpoyed and confiscated while the scuffles left many of them bruised and battered.

We went out again today, from our newsroom in Braamfontein to a couple of blocks downtown to Bree as we heard of yet another round of police raids on foreigner-owned businesses. On arrival, a large crowd of people, more than a hundred in my estimation, had gathered behind a thin line of tape meant to keep them away from the unfolding scenes.

When my colleague and I approached the third line of command, where the police were loading people into the overflowing police trucks, we were barred from crossing it. SAPS officers screamed at us to put our cameras away threatening, “Ngizoyithatha leyo phone” (I will take that phone!) as he pointed at us. He told us as we needed permission to report from operational commander Wayne Minnaar.

We retreated from the main scene to take our photos from a distance. But the threats continued and it weighed on us, our safety a concern at this point.

After consultation with our editors in the newsroom, we realised that we didn’t need permission from the SAPS so we continued documenting what was happening in front of us, as excruciating as it was to do.

After a while, those same policemen came back to bargain with us, to offer us permission at a cost.

“Do you want stories? You must give me your number. You look like my type. We would look good together,” one of the policemen said in isiZulu as they all stared at us salaciously.

I cannot describe the feeling of powerlessness we felt. We were grateful for the distraction of a scuffle which gave us an opportunity to run into the crowd.

The men and women charged with our safety and security stood idly by as an angry mob of bystanders attacked presumably foreign people that were standing among the crowds while the other police officers conducted their raids.

A tall, well-built man, a non-South African, cried out for his brother as tears streaked down his cheeks. The two were separated as the man reached for a phone and looked up to find his brother gone.

He was shoved among the police officers who refused to let him find his brother and instead were pushing him back towards the mob that had earlier assaulted him.

I saw a man torn between fearing for his own life and of his brother while scrambling to find the phone he had dropped on the ground. Even as a journalist, I struggled to keep my composure as I watched this gut-wrenching scene of humanity.

The man never recovered his phone, but was washed with relief at the sight of his brother walking away from the mob into the barricaded area with a police officer holding his hand.

Bystanders with sticks and metal rods waited for foreign nationals to walk into the crowd as members of the JMPD watched. Only three SAPS police officers changed into riot gear as the mob became more agitated at the sight the of foreign nationals.

“Mabahambe! Bopha! Phanzi ngama foreigner amandla!” the angry mob chanted.

“I think they are going to attack the foreigners and they are probably also going to break into their shops when we leave,” the officer said to a colleague.

A male journalist, of Indian origin, arrived at the scene and approached the crowd gathered on Plein Street to report for his organisation.

“Uvikelwa ama poyisa mara sizokubamba foreigner ndini” (the police are protecting you but we are going to catch you, you foreigner!), they shouted at the journalist. A police officer told him to move away from the crowd as some tried to jump over the red tape to get to him. The man reached for his gear and immediately left the scene as the police escorted him to his vehicle which was parked on Bree.

It was just a couple of hours in the city of Johannesburg but it reminded me that as a journalist, I have to negotiate my way through the guardians and the guarded to tell the stories that should be told. But even then, I have more power than many of the people who were at the receiving end of the raids and the hate.

FEATURED IMAGE: SAPS officers geared up in riot uniform facing a crowd on Bree Street during a raid in Johanneburg CBD. Photo: Busang Senne