Chaos descended on parts of the Pretoria CBD on Wednesday as foreign-owned shops were looted and burned by a mob that was on a mission to rid the city of drug dealers.
The morning started with taxi drivers blocking several roads in the CBD, protesting against the shooting of one of their own on Tuesday.
After the shops were looted, they were set alight.
At one point, police officers from the flying squad, wielding R5 rifles, attempted to gain access to Lilian Ngoyi Street to allow the fire department through to attend to the burning buildings. Police officers and firefighters were eventually forced to retreat as the looting continued.
A large police contingent finally moved into the area firing rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades in an attempt to disperse the crowd.
As the police started firing, looters ran away, some with large flat screen TVs that were stolen from an electronics store on the same street.
The police kept clearing streets as the looting continued.
News24 also observed that while the police formed a line on Lilian Ngoyi Street, a group of people moved around the corner and looted shops on Bloed Street, including a tavern. By this time, firefighters were able to enter the area and attended to the fires that had already spread to previously unaffected buildings.
Dozens of looters ran away clutching Castle Lite six-packs as the police eventually caught wind of the looting on Bloed Street.
Despite several people being caught inside looted shops by the police, they were later released.
Gauteng police commissioner Lieutenant General Elias Mawela confirmed no arrests had been made during the mayhem that unfolded on Wednesday.
“For now, we are concentrating on putting the fires out, and then once that is stabilised, it will allow forensic investigators to come in and do their work,” Mawela said.
He added once all the evidence was collected, the case would then be taken forward, saying the police were also going to sit down with the taxi industry to listen to their grievances.
In the meantime, additional police officers have been deployed in the CBD, Marabastad and Sunnyside.
“We have also observed that there are some criminal elements who are exploiting the situation; the ones who are looting, once they get an opportunity to break into a shop and loot.
“The instruction is clear to our police officers, to say that they must deal with those criminal elements and treat them like criminals. But those who are having a serious and genuine concern like the taxi industry, we are going to sit down with them and discuss the way forward,” Mawela added.
Taxi drivers said they had taken to the streets on Wednesday to rid the CBD of drug dealers – targeting mostly foreign nationals.
This came after a taxi driver was shot and killed on Tuesday after taxi operators allegedly found the police were involved in drug dealing.
News24 spoke to several taxi drivers on condition of anonymity. They said they were forced to do the work of the police, accusing law enforcement of being corrupt and complacent when arresting alleged dealers in Pretoria.
“The reason why we are doing this is because the law enforcement agencies are failing us, due to the guys who are selling drugs,” one taxi driver said.
“One of our brothers was killed yesterday, that is why we are so angry,” another added.
The regional chairperson of the SA National Taxi Council in Tshwane, Xolly Tshabalala, said the taxi driver who was killed had a family and was fighting for residents in Pretoria. “We are fighting for our youth. They are using drugs and no one cares. Where is [Police Minister] Bheki Cele? He has to come and tell us what will become of this case.”
Tshabalala said they do not have a problem with foreigners, but rather with criminal activities.
By Wednesday afternoon, the police managed to take control of the situation in the Pretoria CBD and crowds dispersed. However, taxi drivers promised this would not be the end of it.
Tshwane Mayor Stevens Mokgalapa condemned the outbreak of violence and called for calm.
“There is no grievance that should result in death, irrespective of the circumstances between the individuals involved,” Mokgalapa said in a statement.
“This confrontation has led to the looting of shops as well as the destruction of city and business infrastructure. Commuters have also been left stranded as the riots led to the suspension of the Tshwane bus services including the Gautrain.
“I appeal for calm and urge Tshwane residents, the taxi industry, informal traders and all other stakeholders to exercise restraint.”
The mayor added that retaliatory crimes were intolerable.