KRUGERSDORP, South Africa (AP) — Protesters in the South African town of Krugersdorp beat suspected illegal miners with sticks and set fire to their camps Thursday following the arrests of more than 80 men, some believed to be miners, in connection with the gang-rapes of eight women last week.
Residents of Krugersdorp’s Kagiso township also barricaded roads with stones and burning tires in a protest against the presence of the miners. They said they were frustrated by high levels of crime which they blamed on the illegal miners and the police’s alleged failure to deal with them.
Some suspected illegal miners were stripped of their clothes and flogged by residents, who also chased others out of their camps and punched and kicked them before handing them over to the police.
Police responded by firing rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse the protesters, who also clashed with police officers. In some cases, officers rescued the people who were attacked.
“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 rape 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 do not protect us.”
Police said eight women were raped on July 28 when a TV crew filming a music video on a mine dump in the nearby township of West Village was attacked by heavily armed men, some suspected of being illegal miners. Police said they are investigating 32 cases of rape.
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 being involved in the gang rapes appeared in court on Monday.
Illegal mining is rife in South Africa, with miners known as zama-zamas searching for gold at the many closed and abandoned mines in and around the Johannesburg region. Krugersdorp is a mining town on the western fringes of Johannesburg.
Illegal mining gangs are considered dangerous by the police, are usually armed and are known to fight violent turf battles with rival groups. The trade is believed to be dominated by immigrants who enter illegally from neighboring Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and police said some of the men suspected of raping the eight women were foreign nationals.
This has worsened the situation and comes at a time when South Africa is seeing an increase in xenophobic attacks triggered by locals blaming foreigners for crime in their areas.
“What upsets me is that we live as if we are not South Africans. How can someone out of nowhere come and control us in our society?” said Kagiso resident Thoko Setlhabi. “The people from Lesotho and Zimbabwe come into our houses and rape us. You must ensure that you and your family are indoors by 18.00. When will 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 force for failing to act despite warnings from locals that illegal miners were operating in the area as part of larger crime syndicates.
“We are not only fighting the zama-zamas (illegal miners), but we are fighting the whole crime. Our police must stand up, the police must pull up their socks,” said Kabelo Matlou, a local government official.
“Clearly something is wrong here. If someone takes out gold here, where do they take it? Our political leaders must come together and sort this out, he said.