KRUGERSDORP, South Africa (AP) — Protesters in the South African city of Krugersdorp beat suspected illegal miners with sticks and set fire to their camps Thursday following the arrests of more than 80 men, some thought to be miners, in connection with the gang rapes of eight women last week.
Residents of Krugersdorp's Kagiso township also barricaded roads with rocks and burning tires during a protest against the presence of the miners. They said they were frustrated with high levels of crime that they blame on the illegal miners and the alleged failure of police to deal with them.
Some suspected illegal miners were stripped of their clothes and whipped by residents, who also chased others out of their camps and beat and kicked them before handing them over to 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 being attacked.
“We want support from the police because the illegal miners are terrorizing us. We cannot simply 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 are not protecting us.”
Police said eight women were raped on July 28 when a television crew filming a music video at 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 were investigating 32 counts of rape.
The attack was a shocking incident, even for a country used 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 disused and abandoned mines in and around the Johannesburg region. Krugersdorp is a mining city on the western edges 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 countries Lesotho, Zimbabwe and Mozambique and police said that some of the men suspected of raping the eight women were foreign nationals.
That has aggravated the situation and comes at a time when South Africa is seeing an upsurge in xenophobic attacks sparked by locals blaming foreigners for crime in their areas.
“What upsets me is that we live as though we are not South Africans. How can someone from nowhere come and control us in our community?" said Kagiso resident Thoko Setlhabi. "The people from Lesotho and Zimbabwe are coming into our houses and rape us. You must make sure you and your family are indoors by 6 p.m. When will our children be allowed to be free?”
Police say they are still analyzing DNA evidence in order to link some of the suspects to the rapes. But residents have criticized the local police force for doing nothing despite warnings from locals that illegal miners were operating in the area as part of larger crime syndicates.
“We are not fighting only against the zama-zamas (illegal miners), but we are fighting against the entire crime. Our police must stand up, our police must pull up their socks,” said Kabelo Matlou, a local government official.
“Clearly something is wrong here. If somebody takes out gold here, where are they taking it? Our political leaders must come together and sort this out,” he said.