Reuters, 24 October 2000

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The police van turns left and the officers inside find themselves on another dead-end street. It takes several minutes to back the van out and turn it around on the narrow, pot-holed road. “You can see the problems we have patrolling a settlement like this. It is next to impossible,” says police spokeswoman Terry-Ann Booyse as the van encounters another obstacle -- a shack erected in the middle of what passes for a road here. Police have stepped up their presence in this informal settlement just west of Johannesburg in response to a wave of violence against Zimbabwean immigrants. The South Africans have accused the foreigners in their midst of committing crimes and taking scarce jobs from them. Several weeks of simmering violence exploded on Sunday into a rampage, with dozens of shacks belonging to Zimbabweans burnt and 174 looted. Police estimate around 1,000 of the Zimbabweans have been made homeless. Four more shacks were gutted on Monday night and another three burnt on Tuesday night. But keeping order in this crowded squatter camp of around 50,000 is no easy task. Police can hardly zoom to crime scenes at break-neck speeds. Most of the roads are too narrow to allow two vehicles to pass each other and summer rains have turned many into muddy swamps. The camp is a disjointed maze that frequently changes as newcomers build modest homes from wood and corrugated iron. Residents sometimes put obstacles in the road to prevent the police from getting through. “If a shack is set alight over there, we may not know about it, and if we do, how do we possibly get there in time to catch the Perpetrators?” Booyse asked. “We can’t patrol here on foot because there are no lights. And if someone runs it is easy for them to duck up an ally and get away,” she said. The narrow, dark roads also leave police vulnerable to ambush in a country awash with guns. Most vehicles patrolling the camp carry several officers. Nearly 200 police officers are murdered in crime-ridden South Africa each year. Those on patrol tonight are heavily armed and wear bullet-proof vests. But the police can do nothing about the camp’s gut-wrenching poverty, seen as the main factor behind the violent xenophobia shown by some of its residents. South Africa’s unemployment rate is over 30 percent and the camps’ poor and unskilled inhabitants, who far outnumber the available jobs, bear the brunt of this. While no one seems certain of what sparked the latest violence, Zimbabweans were widely blamed for two murders in the camp last month and ordered by residents to leave. Others say the killing of a woman triggered the rampage.