Angry residents in South Africa’s Gauteng province have looted and set alight buildings and businesses believed to be run by foreigners as drug dens or brothels. The spate of violence began in Rosettenville, a suburb of Johannesburg, on February 5, and then spread to Pretoria West, a neighbourhood in the country’s capital, on February 18.

In Rosettenville on Sunday, February 5, a group of residents destroyed property belonging to foreign-born residents, primarily Nigerians, alleging that they were drug dealers and brothel owners. After protesting in the street, locals entered buildings and set them alight. They complained that local authorities had ignored their pleas to take action. During the week that followed, City of Johannesburg police raided several brothels.

The official Twitter account for the city of Johannesburg tweeted photos of operations to fight against prostitution and drugs in the suburbs.


But protests erupted again in Rosettenville the following Sunday, and at least four houses were torched, with one person treated for smoke inhalation. Police cars lined the streets of the suburb and used tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds of protesters in an attempt to quell the violence.

A resident of Rosettenville took this video of protests in front of a night club on Verona Street in Rosettenville. Protesters burnt rubbish and cardboard in front of the property, claiming that drugs were sold inside the bar. This video was taken in the afternoon on February 5, 2017.

By Saturday, February 18, the unrest had spread to a suburb of Pretoria, where locals also targeted homes and businesses owned or occupied by foreigners suspected to be selling drugs and running brothels. South African Police Service (SAPS) spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Lungelo Dlamini told FRANCE 24 that more than 10 buildings in both Rosettenville and Pretoria had been attacked since the protests began. He said no injuries had been reported, and that the police were investigating allegations that the targeted sites were used as brothels or drug dens."

Video taken by
Lindiwe Sithole showing one of the houses in Pretoria West after being set ablaze by protesters who allege that it was being used by Nigerians as a brothel and drug den.

The protests and attacks have been under fire for xenophobia. Johannesburg’s mayor, Herman Mashaba, has been accused of inflaming tensions, after he said at a press conference in December 2016 that “illegal immigrants got here criminally and should be treated as such.” He added, “You see, for me, when I call these criminals criminals, I want them to understand they are criminals”.

Correction 6/3/17: An original version of this story used the account of a national from the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have unpublished his account because we have since learnt that he was not living in Rosettenville at the time of the unrest.

One of the houses that was torched and looted in Rosettenville. Photo credit: Twitter

The Nigerian president’s office has urged the African Union, an international organisation founded to promote unity between independent African states, to intervene, saying in a statement that violence against Nigerians was “unacceptable to the people and Government of Nigeria.”

It is hard to come by exact figures for how many foreign-born nationals live in South Africa. A 2016 survey by Statistics South Africa showed that there are 1.6 million people living in the country who were born outside of the country, which actually represents a decline since the 2011 Census.This decrease could be attributable, the survey says, to an “instilled fear of disclosure of one’s origin”. The Observers’ media partner, Africa Check, has tried to break down the facts.

“They just want the brothels and drug dens to be shut down”

Haroon Abramjee lives in Pretoria West, and passed by some of the scenes of rioting at the weekend.

A group of residents attacked a few houses belonging to or occupied by foreigners, mostly Nigerians and East Africans and Central Africans. The reason why they attack these houses is that a lot of these houses are used as drug dens and prostitution houses.

If one goes to Pretoria West, it’s obvious how the area is retrogressing and how drugs and prostitution are flourishing in this area. You can see prostitutes walking the streets looking for clients.


I do feel unsafe in Pretoria West. One has to be alert all the time. When you are driving you have to be wary of people jacking your car or smashing your windows. You’re paranoid. A very common crime here is called “smash and grab”: you stop at a stoplight, and they smash your window and then grab anything that is visible, your smartphone, laptop, anything.

“We have to think of the criminal element”

Police patrol regularly but nothing happens. We believe that it’s because of corruption. They know what’s happening because it’s under their noses. The police are turning a blind eye and are not acting on any of this information.
Frustration with the police led residents to take the law into their own hands, or at least to encourage the security forces to move in and start doing something.

Violence between protesters on the streets of Pretoria West. Video:
Gabi Mbele

Of course there are a lot of foreigners that are fine. I don’t think people have a problem with Nigerians as such. The protests are not xenophobic. But we have to think of the criminal element. Unfortunately, the people that are running these operations are usually foreigners.

A police committee admitted that trust between communities and South African police needs to be strengthened. “We cannot allow citizens’ trust in law enforcement agencies to erode any further. It is patently clear that urgent interventions are needed at certain police stations,” said the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Police, François Beukman.