PRETORIA – On a street corner in Pretoria, South Africans gather just meters from the immigrants they’re marching against.
The Somali traders form a protective line, some armed with sticks and rocks.
Riot police wedge themselves and their armoured carriers between the two sides. A police helicopter hovers directly above, scattering dust and trash.
“Get out of our country,” a woman cries pointing at the immigrants and taking a few steps forward. A trader yells back an insult.
A police flash bang goes off, then another. And the police charge down the road shooting rubber bullets. Not at the protesters, but at the Somalis, who scatter through their neighborhood, ducking into houses and behind walls.
“We got looted today already. But now the police are after us,” says Hussein, from Kismayo, Somalia, “I fled civil war. I thought this was a place to get peace.”
“It’s inhumane and unfair,” another man shouts through the fence. Like most of the Somalis here, too afraid to give his name.
The anti-immigrant march came after days of sporadic xenophobic attacks and looting in Pretoria and beyond. The South African Police Service allowed the protest, and organizers vowed it would be peaceful.
But few anti-foreigner gatherings here ever are.
“This march is purely about spreading hatred. People will say that they have a right to freedom of demonstration. But you can not use your freedom to promote hatred,” says Marc Gbaffou, of the African Diaspora Forum, an immigrant rights group.
The xenophobic attacks are not new, nor are they the most serious of recent years.
Predating the wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in parts of Europe and the US, the protests are just the latest spasm of xenophobia to grip South Africa.
In 2015, several people were killed and thousands fled after xenophobic attacks across the country.
Many blamed King Goodwill Zwelithini, the chief of the Zulu people, for sparking the violence by telling followers that foreigners should “pack their bags and go home.”
Despite the video recording, the King says he was misquoted.
In 2008, scores were killed and thousands pushed into makeshift camps because of similar attacks.
Rampant unemployment and high crime rates have stoked the anger of South Africans against foreign migrants, many who fled hardship in other parts of the continent. The unemployment rate in South Africa was over 26 per cent in 2016, according to some estimates.
Amnesty International said the violence is being fueled, in part, by longstanding police and criminal justice failures. The group also cited toxic populist rhetoric that blames and scapegoats refugees and migrants for crime, unemployment and other social problems.
“South African authorities have largely failed to address the outbreak of xenophobic crimes that has been seen in the country since at least 2008 and bring those responsible to justice,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa. “Failure to act upon this sends a worrisome message that such acts are tolerated by the authorities.”
During Friday’s running battles, several Somalis blamed the current violence on Herman Mashaba, the mayor of nearby Johannesburg.
Mashaba said earlier this week that some illegal foreigners were criminals that should be targeted.
“They’re holding our country to ransom and I’m going to be the last South African to allow it,” he said on local news outlets.
Mashaba disputes the claim he is responsible and on Friday called for calm and said residents should not to take the law into their own hands.
A coalition of human rights groups called for the mayor to resign.
In a statement, President Jacob Zuma called for restraint and condemned the acts of violence.