False rumours spark run on foreign shops

SAFE FOR NOW: Armed police stand guard while foreign shop owners try to salvage what is left after looters went on the rampage in Grahamstown yesterday Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR
SAFE FOR NOW: Armed police stand guard while foreign shop owners try to salvage what is left after looters went on the rampage in Grahamstown yesterday Picture: DAVID MACGREGOR
Dozens of foreign-owned shops were targeted in xenophobic attacks in Grahamstown yesterday afternoon when bizarre rumours that a foreign national had been involved in a series of murders over the past few months went viral.

Police have repeatedly rubbished rumours of a serial murderer on the loose, and have rejected outright claims that the bodies of some of the murdered people had been harvested for muti.

Despite this, people cited the rumours as an excuse when they went on the rampage yesterday afternoon, trashing and looting numerous foreign-owned shops.

More than 30 terrified foreign nationals took refuge at the Grahamstown police station yesterday.

By 7pm police had arrested more than 90 people for looting, but running battles between police and looters were still under way. About 70 spaza shops had been looted throughout the day.

SA Police Services spokeswoman Captain Mali Govender said the Makana municipality and local businesses were trying to find a safe place for the foreign nationals to stay for the night.

The foreign-owned shops became soft targets when police manpower was yesterday directed at monitoring marches by Rhodes University students as well as a taxi operators protesting Grahamstown’s potholed roads and the high crime rate.

Rumours were rife that a foreign national was selling body parts and might be behind several recent murders. But Govender yesterday again reiterated that police had found no links in a series of murders over the past six months and that the rumours were ill-founded. She said there had been no harvesting of any body parts from any of the victims.

She also rejected rumours that a foreign national was a suspect or had been arrested in connection with any of the murders.

Unemployed People’s Movement (UPM) spokesman Ayanda Kota said the UPM had deployed its members across Grahamstown East to put themselves between the targeted shops and those trying to loot them.

He said people had been so terrifyingly determined to destroy and loot that they had even begun ripping the roofs off some of the shops.

“Inside we found the families crying in terror. We persuaded them to come into our cars and took them to the police station.” He said they had, between them, transported about 25 people to the police station.

A furious Kota said the UPM had met with police a week ago to warn them of the rumours and the xenophobic fury people were working themselves up to. “It was inevitable. The police should have acted sooner. We knew this was coming, and we told them it was coming.”

Govender confirmed that they had been warned a while back of the possibility but said police had done their utmost to try to detect if xenophobic violence was brewing.

But police were spread thin across the board yesterday, and looters took advantage of this.

Kota said he did not know how or why the rumours of a foreign national being involved in any murders had started. “These dangerous rumours spread like wildfire in our areas which are hard hit by unemployment and drug dealing and use. We now appeal to the community to please calm down. People’s lives are on the line.”

Govender said police had unsolved murders on their books but police had recently made breakthroughs on all of them.

She reiterated that forensic pathologists had confirmed that no body parts had been harvested. In one case a body had been mutilated by animals, which is what, police suspect, led to the rumours.

By late yesterday evening police were still trying their utmost to prevent widespread looting and assist people to get provisions out of their shops. They fired buckshot at looters but were unable to contain the looters as they moved from shop to shop. Police were hindered by burning tyres barricading streets.

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