JOHANNESBURG — At least 21 people were killed over the weekend as gunmen opened fire on three taverns in South Africa, in what the police described as “random” shootings.
Early Sunday morning in Soweto, in Johannesburg, a group of men armed with rifles and automatic handguns stormed a busy tavern in the Nomzamo shantytown, in the city’s Orlando East neighborhood, said Col. Dimakatso Sello, a spokeswoman for the police.
The men opened fire around half an hour after midnight in what appeared to be a random shooting, Colonel Sello said, killing 12 people on the scene and injuring 23. Three more people later died at a hospital, the police said. They said that those killed were between the ages of 19 and 35.
The gunmen fled the scene, and no arrests have been made, the police said. Later Sunday morning, people gathered outside the tavern as the police removed bodies from the building.
Only hours before the attack in Soweto, gunmen in Pietermaritzburg, a city about 300 miles southeast of Johannesburg in KwaZulu-Natal Province, killed at least four people and injured at least eight in a shooting in a tavern in Sweetwaters, an area on the outskirts of the city, the police said.
There was no evidence that the two attacks were linked, said Lt.-Col. Nqobile Gwala, a spokeswoman for the police.
Around 8:30 p.m. Saturday, the police said, two men entered the Sweetwaters tavern and started firing at random before fleeing the scene.
Two people died at the tavern and two others at a nearby hospital, the police said, adding that those killed were between the ages of 30 and 45. Eight other people were also taken to a hospital.
In yet another tavern shooting over the weekend, gunmen killed two people and injured four on Friday night in the Katlehong township, more than 25 miles east of Soweto. The police said that four men entered the establishment, at least one armed with a pistol, and started shooting randomly. The police have not said whether the two attacks in the Johannesburg area were connected, but they said they had launched a manhunt for the gunmen.
The three separate attacks, hundreds of miles apart, have brought into sharp focus South Africa’s high rate of crime and gun violence. According to police statistics, the country recorded 5,760 murders last year, or 9.5 murders per 100,000 people, a 66 percent increase from the previous year. The police station serving the Sweetwaters community has the second highest number of murders reported in the country, according to the official statistics.
President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa condemned the killings, describing them as “unacceptable and worrying.”
Only two weeks ago, 21 teenagers mysteriously died during a night out in the coastal city of East London, about 360 miles southwest of Pietermaritzburg. The cause of their deaths is still unknown, but officials have ruled out a stampede. The episode set off a national conversation about the need for stricter regulation of taverns in South Africa’s townships.
These drinking holes, often in residential areas, are a legacy of shebeens from the apartheid era, when Black South Africans were not allowed to enter segregated bars. These shebeens became sites of violence and risky behavior, with little oversight, a culture that continues to this day, according to a 2018 World Health Organization report.