Gunmen used automatic rifles and high-powered handguns to kill 15 people and injure eight others in a mass shooting at a tavern in Johannesburg’s Soweto township in the early hours of Sunday.
The attack in the Nomzamo informal settlement happened shortly after midnight when a group of men arrived in a Toyota minibus and entered the bar, neighbors told the Guardian.
Police said the victims were “randomly” shot while drinking, contradicting early reports that they were specifically targeted. These shootouts are often tied to gang vendettas or turf battles.
National police spokesman Colonel Dimakatso Sello said a special team had been formed to investigate the attack, led by a senior detective.
“There has been no history of problems with the tavern as far as the police are concerned, but the township has been difficult for us because there is no electricity so it is very dark,” said Sello said.
Gauteng Provincial Police Commissioner Lt. Gen. Elias Mawela told reporters that many of the victims died as they tried to flee.
“All of a sudden they heard gunshots, that’s when people tried to run out of the tavern. We don’t have full details at the moment on the motive and why they were targeting these people,” he said.
“You can see that a high caliber gun was used and it was firing randomly. You can see that each of these people was struggling to get out of the tavern… The number of rounds shows that he s was about a group of people [shooting]Mawela added.
Rifles and a 9mm pistol were used in the attack, Sello said.
The shooting highlights the continuing lawlessness in parts of South Africa and the very high rates of violent crime, often involving firearms. Four people were killed in a similar attack on a tavern in Pietermaritzburg.
Nomzamo Township is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Soweto, a satellite town on the outskirts of Johannesburg made famous for its role in the anti-apartheid struggle. Much of Soweto is now considered relatively wealthy. Tourists flock to museums, restaurants and Nelson Mandela’s home, about a mile from the scene of the shooting.
However, Nomzamo, a cluster of tin and timber huts with a line of portable toilets and a few scattered concrete houses, is a reminder of the deep poverty that persists in South Africa.
“It’s hard here and it’s getting worse. There are lots of people, there are no jobs, no electricity, nothing,” said Thabiso Letlojane, 31, who has lived in the township all his life.
Letlojane had been drinking in the tavern a few hours before the attack. “It’s just a normal pub. It was very quiet in the evening. We are really shocked. It just shows that no one is safe, especially in this area. People are shooting all the time, every day, every nights. You can’t sleep without hearing the sound of guns,” he told the Guardian.
Gladys Nkona said she blamed the African National Congress, which has held power since the end of the apartheid regime nearly 30 years ago. The ruling party has been hit with a series of corruption charges and is often the target of protests from local communities who want better services.
“The police do nothing. The government does nothing. They don’t care about the poor. For them, it’s just about filling their own pockets,” said Nkona, 42.
Officials said the tavern was operating in accordance with its license and all victims were of legal drinking age. One of them was released from hospital after being treated. Seven others are still in serious or critical condition.
The age of the drinkers has become a concern after 21 teenagers were found dead in a tavern in the city of East London two weeks ago. The cause of these deaths has not yet been announced by authorities, but the victims were not shot or crushed in a stampede.
ANC officials said they had done a lot to help residents of Nomzamo township.
“Five years ago there were no real houses and there has been a lot of progress. If you look across Soweto you can see the development. You give people a start and they help themselves. There is harmony here,” said Stan Itshegetseng, a regional ANC official, who said he came to Nomzamo after hearing about the shooting to “listen to people.”
The country’s murder rate dropped significantly during the Covid shutdowns, but rose sharply in the last three months of 2021, according to the most recent statistics. Alcohol outlets are the fourth most common location for murders in South Africa.