KRUGERSDORP, South Africa (AP) – Community members in the South African city of Krugersdorp beat suspected illegal miners with sticks and set fire to their camps on Thursday after the arrest of more than 80 men, some of whom were suspected miners, under suspicion of gang rape of eight women last week.
Residents of the Kagiso municipality in Krugersdorp also barricaded roads with stones and burning tires during a protest against the presence of the miners. They say they are frustrated with the high crime rate in the area that they blame the illegal miners and the failure of the police to deal with them.
Some suspected illegal miners were stripped of their clothes and beaten by residents. Residents chased others from their camps, beat and kicked them and turned them over to the police. In some cases, the miners were rescued by the police from the protesters.
Police responded by firing rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters, who also clashed with police officers.
“We want support from the police because the illegal miners are terrorizing us. We can’t just walk around the neighborhood at night because they are raping us,” said Nhlanhla Felatsi, who was part of the protest. “We recently had an incident where two female security officers were raped by the same people. The police are not protecting us.”
Police say eight women were raped last Thursday when a television crew filming a music video at a mining dump in the nearby West Village township was attacked by heavily armed men, some suspected of being illegal miners. Police said they are investigating 32 rape cases.
The attack was a shocking incident, even for a country accustomed to high levels of violent crime like South Africa. More than 80 men accused of gang rape appeared in court on Monday.
Illegal mining is rife in South Africa, with miners known as zama-zamas foraging for gold in the many unused and abandoned mines in and around the Johannesburg region. Krugersdorp is a mining town on the western outskirts of Johannesburg.
Illegal mining gangs are considered dangerous by the police, are usually armed and are known for fighting violent battles with rival groups. The trade is believed to be dominated by immigrants entering illegally from neighboring Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and police said some of the men suspected of raping the eight women were foreign nationals.
That has exacerbated the situation and comes at a time when South Africa is seeing an increase in xenophobic attacks fueled by locals blaming foreigners for the crime in their area.
“What upsets me is that we live like we’re not South Africans. How could someone out of the blue come to control us in our community?” said Kagiso resident Thoko Setlhabi. “The people from Lesotho and Zimbabwe come into our homes and rape us. You must make sure that you and your family are in by 6 pm. When can our children be free?”
Police say they are still analyzing DNA evidence to link some of the suspects to the rapes. But residents have criticized the local police for doing nothing, despite warnings from locals that illegal miners in the area were operating as part of larger crime syndicates.
“We are not just fighting the zama-zamas (illegal miners), but we are fighting the whole crime. Our police must stand up, our police must put on their socks,” said Kabelo Matlou, a local government official.
“There is clearly something wrong here. If someone gets gold here, where do they get it? Our political leaders must come together to resolve this,” he said.