South African mobs have burnt down the homes of illegal migrants as they seek to avenge the gang rape of eight women in an attack which shocked the nation.
Thousands of angry residents from the Kagiso township, west of Johannesburg, beat illegal mine workers, commonly known as “zama zamas”, with machetes and clubs on Thursday. It comes amid rising xenophobic violence in the “Rainbow Nation”.
Most of the illegal miners come from neighbouring countries and work in unsafe conditions in the abandoned mineshafts that surround Johannesburg.
Locals blamed foreign migrants for the gang rape of a group of models who had travelled to the abandoned mines, near West Village, Krugersdorp, to shoot a gospel music video last week.
As they were filming, the assailants emerged out of the bush and fired warning shots into the air. The models were ordered to lie down at gunpoint and then taken one by one into the bush to be raped.
One of the victims said she pretended to have a miscarriage after she was violated to avoid being raped again.
“I had no way out but to lie, because they were picking us up one by one. There were others who were raped by six to 10 men,” she told local press.
Another victim recalled how some of the younger boys were forced to rape the women by older gang members, or risk being beaten themselves.
The shocking case has sparked a wave of anti-migrant sentiment in South Africa, which has a long history of xenophobia against African immigrants.
The police said illegal migrants who travel to the area in search of informal work from neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Cameroon were behind the attack. Since the incident, more than 120 people have been arrested.
The government is facing increasing pressure to deal with illegal immigrants. It has warned around 160,000 Zimbabweans who have temporary work permits that they must leave South Africa by the end of the year unless they get a formal permit.
The visas were issued in 2009 to Zimbabweans working illegally in South Africa. The move was seen as a gesture of goodwill while former president Robert Mugabe drove Zimbabwe into the ground with disastrous economic policies.
The visa, which was initially granted for a five-year period, had been extended twice. The sudden U-turn is believed to be a show of force by South Africa’s government which is keen to demonstrate action against illegal migrants.
The UN warned in July that the country “is on the precipice of explosive violence” due to anti-migrant discourse from senior government officials.