Inner-city Johannesburg and Pretoria heroin syndicates are embroiled in xenophobic violence. The situation is volatile and likely to erupt in violence again.

As looting and violence targeting African foreign nationals has flared up again in South Africa’s cities in recent weeks, the accusation that foreign nationals are involved in drug dealing and criminal activity has been a prominent and inflammatory theme. South African politicians have used the accusation as a pretext to stoke inter-community discord and pursue populist agendas, and members of local communities have likewise cited it as a justification for engaging in violence themselves,1 a cover for more complex agendas of xenophobic mistrust and grievances over jobs, housing and businesses.2

Our previous research has explored how key criminal syndicates in South Africa do draw on networks within migrant communities, particularly Tanzanian networks in heroin markets.3 Syndicates controlled by foreigners also seek to blend in within their wider immigrant communities as a means of protection – for example, by not marking themselves out in terms of distinctive gang markers and tattoos – even when their criminality and violence are denounced by these communities. However, at the same time, it is South African-controlled syndicates that make up most of the powerful criminal groups in the country. Criminal syndicates embedded in migrant communities have been able to gain a foothold in South Africa within the broader picture of police corruption, the lack of preventative measures to contain the growth of the criminal economy, and the historic control of these networks over the trafficking of key substances, which provide links to suppliers and knowledge of illicit production that local organizations do not have such ready access to.

Across the country, South African criminal syndicates, foreign criminal syndicates and corrupt elements in the police service all interact in communities where there is an atmosphere of xenophobic unrest and economic stress. It is in this context that in recent weeks, underworld dynamics have spiralled out of control, and helped to catalyze the catastrophic rioting seen in certain areas.

The incident that sparked the first wave of protests and rioting in Pretoria showed these dynamics in action as well as the complexity of the dynamics between Tanzanian networks, corrupt police and criminal figures within the taxi industry.

Local media reports have described how violence erupted in Pretoria on 27 August following the killing of taxi driver Jabu Baloyi in the city centre after an altercation with drug dealers.4 Reports differ as to how the dispute began: some media sources have reported that Baloyi and other taxi operators were trying to forcibly ‘clear’ the city centre of drug dealers.5 The local branch of the ANC has called for a street in Pretoria to be renamed in his honour.6 However, police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate, stated on 11 September that it has received information that Baloyi’s death has been misrepresented and is investigating related corruption allegations.7

In Pretoria, many of the Tanzanian dealers operating locally are based in the inner-city suburb of Sunnyside, the area in which the 27 August violence erupted.8 Several sources connected to the drug trade have told us their accounts of the original incident, as it unfolded, and its immediate aftermath.

A ruined building known locally as the White House is used as a base by several Tanzanian dealers. One long-term resident of the house recounted how on 27 August, a taxi driver approached one of these dealers with a laptop, wanting to exchange it for heroin. The dealer (name unknown) accompanied the driver to a nearby shop owned by a well-established Tanzanian dealer called Asani Chura.9 This set the scene for the dispute, as the driver reportedly seized cash from Chura and ran off, keeping the laptop. Chura and the other dealer confronted the driver at a taxi rank, whereupon a larger group of taxi drivers present encircled the two Tanzanians and attacked them. This led to a reprisal confrontation when the Tanzanian returned with support from the White House. Among them was a Tanzanian known as Rio Tonga, a former Dar es Salaam gangster with a reputation for settling disputes with violence. At the taxi rank, guns were drawn, and Baloyi was killed, allegedly by Tonga. An hour later, the city was in chaos, as groups of taxi bosses went hunting down drug dealers, and South African mobs looted foreign-owned businesses, and, later, any business they could break into.10 The violence continued and similar riots followed in other cities, including Johannesburg.

The shooter, Tonga, is reportedly a former member of the Kommando Yosso gang, which operated from the Dar es Salaam slum of Mburahati in the 1980s and 90s before the group was broken up by the Tanzanian government. This reflects a pattern widely reported by Tanzanian communities in South Africa, that violent actors are often members of former Dar es Salaam criminal groups – such as Kommando Yosso and Mwiba Mitu (broken up in 2015) – who have been displaced across the region by law enforcement action, often injecting more violent methods into the diaspora communities they then join.

The aftermath of this violence has affected drug markets on several levels, and in different ways in Pretoria and Johannesburg, including reprisal attacks, the regional displacement of criminal actors, heroin prices and syndicates’ exploitation of corrupt police officers.

In Pretoria, residents of the White House reported that on 24 September, a vigilante group (allegedly formed of taxi drivers) led a reprisal attack against the house residents. We received conflicting reports of the event. One source, claiming to have been in the building when the attack occurred, said that two Tanzanians had been killed and six or seven had been hospitalized. Another said nobody had been killed, but that two Tanzanians had been kidnapped by the group, and many had been severely beaten and were in hospital. Police reported that they had no record of an incident. Fearing vigilante attacks, intense police attention and deep distrust within the Tanzanian community, several dealers left Pretoria during this period. Tonga, Chura and others involved in the 27 August incident reportedly immediately left for Maputo.

This is the latest round of a recurring cycle of displacement of criminal figures across the region, either following police action or localized violence: Tonga had reportedly fled to Mozambique in the 1990s following the breakup of Kommando Yosso. In the words of one Pretoria dealer: ‘He came to South Africa around the time of Mandela, and from the start he carried a gun. He was kicked out of Durban and came to Johannesburg. He was kicked out of Johannesburg and he came to Pretoria. Now he burned Pretoria down and ran away to Maputo.’

At the same time, the crackdown against drug markets led by President Magufuli’s administration is a push factor against drug dealers returning to Tanzania. According to one interviewee who works for a Tanzanian ‘heroin business’ in Johannesburg, the violence in South Africa does not outweigh the risks of returning home: ‘Magufuli has made war on young men. If soldiers find a group of us playing cards somewhere, they start beating straight [away]. If you try run, they can shoot. In the report they will say, “This dead one was a drug dealer, we found these drugs in his shoe.”’

The vacuum left by dealers in Pretoria allegedly led to a drop in supply and high demand for marijuana and heroin in some areas. One source said he had been able to sell heroin ‘sections’ (quarter grams) for R50 in the first half of September, double the price before the violence erupted. However, vigilantism and intense police attention have made street dealing very risky. Simply being out on the street was a risk, as police started spot-checking pedestrians for documentation and arresting those unable to produce proof of legal residence. Some syndicate bosses apparently leased rooms, so that their dealers could operate discreetly, but police were responding strategically, arresting known Tanzanian heroin users and offering to release them without charge if they agreed to point out dealers’ houses. At least one alleged snitch had been killed by his own community.

By contrast, reports from Johannesburg suggest that, while these weeks have been chaotic, disruption to the heroin trade has been less marked. The price of heroin has not risen above R20 per quarter gram, and trade remains in the control of Tanzanian syndicates, although there has been considerable shake-up of personnel. Certain ‘corners’ (drug retail points, often quite literally street corners) were temporarily deserted, as syndicates feared that police officers who would otherwise be amenable to bribes would be under pressure to arrest and charge known dealers, leading to some inter-syndicate feuding over territory.

The feuding is fuelled by syndicates weaponizing corrupt police officers to target rival dealers. As an example, one Johannesburg-based dealer we interviewed was arrested the day he returned to his corner. The arresting officer – who has accepted money from him many times before – told him that another Tanzanian syndicate boss had paid him to make the arrest. In response, the dealer’s brother, who resides in Pretoria, paid a Pretoria police contact R1 000 to drive to Johannesburg in his personal vehicle and intervene. The dealer was released and returned to Pretoria with the officer. On the road, the dealer reported the incident to his boss, who reportedly then paid another policeman to arrest the Tanzanian man who had originally ordered the police action. ‘That guy was arrested and charged. He’s in Sun City [Leeuwkop Prison] now.’

However, while many police officers are compromised, how this plays out is highly complex at the local level, and much can be determined by attitudes in individual stations. Effective street dealers learn to navigate these challenges, including dealing with officers from different stations simultaneously. In Pretoria, for example, several residents of the White House reported that police officers had protected residents by warning of impending vigilante attacks, entering the building and shouting for residents to get out.

South Africa’s urban drug markets remain a very volatile space, as the operation of corrupt police officers, foreign-controlled drug-trafficking syndicates and violent South African vigilante and criminal groups operate in the same space, amid a tense atmosphere of wider xenophobic violence. Without interventions that can tackle complex local dynamics, violence may well erupt again.


  1. Suraya Dadoo, South Africa: Xenophobia is in fact Afrophobia, call it what it is, The Elephant, 11 September 2019.

  2. Jan Bornman, The people who sparked the xenophobic violence, Daily Maverick, 11 September 2019,

  3. Mark Shaw, Simone Haysom and Peter Gastrow, The heroin coast: A political economy along the East African seaboard, ENACT, June 2018,

  4. eNCA, Chaos erupts in Pretoria following the death of a taxi driver, 28 August 2019,

  5. Unathi Nkanjeni, Pretoria protest: What you need to know, TimesLIVE, 28 August 2019,; Penwell Dlamini, Taxi driver shot dead after nyaope clean-up operation goes wrong, Sowetan Live, 27 August 2019,

  6. Jonisani Maromo, ANC in Pretoria wants street named after slain taxi driver Jabu Baloyi, IOL, 9 October 2019,

  7. Pearl Magubane, Death of Pretoria taxi driver back under the spotlight, SABC News, 11 September 2019,

  8. Nomahlubi Jordaan and Penwell Dlamini, Taxi driver shot dead, violence escalates in Pretoria CBD, Sunday Times LIVE, 27 August 2019,

  9. Chura means ‘frog’ in Swahili. Very seldom are Tanzanian dealers in South Africa called by their real names. 

  10. Bonga Dlulane, Pretoria looters target foreign nationals in CBD EyeWitness News, 28 August 2019,