church precinct a murder zone

THE area around the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg has become dangerous for people at night.

People who work in the area, home to hundreds of homeless refugees, say five people have been killed in the last few months around Smal, Pritchard and Von Brandis streets.

Johannesburg central police station spokesperson Captain John Maluleke said there had been a number of killings in the area but could not confirm the number.

Car guard Malusi Nkqeto said he witnessed a gruesome murder last month.

"I was walking to my post that morning when I saw someone being stabbed to death in Von Brandis Street. From what I saw he was killed because he did not have money and the robbers didn't believe him," Nkqeto said.

Last month Sowetan reported about gangsterism in the church. A group of South African thugs calling themselves the Sowetans were using the church as a safe haven to hide during the day after their criminal activities at night.

Refugees said the gang robbed passersby of cash and cellphones, but rarely bothered the residents of the church.

Even the church's Bishop Paul Verryn, who has championed the cause of the refugees, has been threatened, but he dismissed that incident as an isolated anomaly. A R30000 bounty was placed on his head in April and he contacted the police after receiving calls saying that his days were numbered.

"We staked out the area and arrested the two men who claimed to have been sent by local business owners who wanted the church closed down," said Maluleke.

"They wanted money from Verryn or else they said they were going to follow their instructions and kill him."

Verryn has continued with his humanitarian work.

"There has been nothing similar lately and I don't really feel unsafe," he said.

But the bishop does call for regular police patrols in the area.

Verryn said some refugees had threatened to retaliate if they were moved out of the church or sent to a spot in the building they didn't like.

Outside the church a turf war is brewing between Zimbabweans squatting on Pritchard Street, next to the high court, and car guards, who say they have been subjected to more attacks over the past few weeks.

"Last week I was attacked and beaten by a group of people who spend their days here on the street," Nkqeto said.

"They said they stayed here all day and night so they should guard and wash the cars not us.

"I went to Johannesburg Central police station, but they complained that the area is a crime hotspot. Because I couldn't point out exactly who assaulted me, there was little that could be done.

"It was not even worth giving a statement to the police and putting my life at risk. This area is really unsafe at night."

Maluleke said Zimbabwean nationals were not responsible for all the crimes in the area.

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