Business Day, 27 June 2008

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For the police of Alexandra township, it is business as usual after the xenophobic attacks. Theko Pharasi is a director at the Alexandra police station, with 27 years' experience under his belt. He has been at his present post for four years. In his own words, the priority of the station is to make sure residents are protected and are always safe. The station has "enough personnel" to deal with any crisis situation, he says. "What we did in reaction to the xenophobic attacks did not make much difference to our daily activities. We did that to protect our community," Pharasi says. Having resurfaced in Alexandra, the attacks spread to other parts of Gauteng, then to other provinces. It was on Sunday night, May 11, when the police received a call from a local community leader informing "us that there is a fight that is taking place" and that people were "attacking each other". "We immediately rushed to the scene. We discovered that people were being chased out of their shacks, and they were innocently standing along the London Road. We sought back-up from the Johannesburg metro police department. We brought some victims to the police station for their safety," Pharasi says. The situation, described as "complex", took the police by surprise. Several rescued foreigners -- and South Africans -- were accommodated at the station that night, but the number swelled to 518 the next day. "The reporting of crimes such as rape, housebreaking, robbery and theft increased since then. Fortunately, our police officers managed to cope with the situation," Pharasi says. An integrated approach -- involving interested parties such as local community bodies, churches and nongovernmental organisations -- helped to deal with the situation. "Our relationship with community members is good; this is the reason why the situation was managed and controlled properly within three days. We have so far arrested over 65 suspects and they have appeared in court facing charges varying from rape, assault, housebreaking and possession of illegal firearms." "To me, the whole violent attacks were characterised by a mixture of criminal activity and hate crime. Fortunately, we never had too much damages -- burning of shacks like in Ramaphosa informal settlement. In the whole of Alexandra, only two people were killed, a South African and a Zimbabwean ," Pharasi says. "Together (with the stakeholders), we managed to calm down the situation without straining our limited resources. We worked tirelessly together. What we have learnt as a police station is that we need to involve other people if faced with a situation like that. "Most displaced victims went back to live peacefully with the community. Very few were referred to different temporary shelters."