It also was a test of UNHCR's efforts to enhance coordination with police in South Africa to protect the refugees and asylum-seekers who sometimes become the targets of protests against the lack of services.
"The only way to get government's attention is to take our grievances to the main road," called one of the protesters as police blocked them from descending on Hans Strijdom Avenue, the main artery linking the decay of the "informal" community in Mamelodi East with the affluent suburbs and business centres of Pretoria East.
Burning tyres, rocks and rotting refuse littered Mohwerele Street, the stage upon which the stand-off between the enraged community and the police played out last Tuesday. On the corner of Mohwerele and Moretlwa Street the community taunted police while hurling well-aimed stones. The police retaliated by firing rubber bullets and ordering onlookers back into their shacks.
Right beside the spot stood the Somali-owned Olympic Shop, its owners locked inside fearful of loss to their property and their lives at the hands of the protesters. "I'm just praying that no one thinks of attacking that shop," confided Abdul Hassam, chairperson of the Somali Association of South Africa. "Not a chance," I countered. "The police won't allow it." He relaxed a little, but the worry remained in his eyes.
Hassam had contacted UNHCR's Deputy Regional Representative Sergio Calle Norena, who prior to the march had discussed the possible victimization of Somali refugee traders and other foreign business people in the township with the national director in the South African Police Services (SAPS).
In collaboration with the Protection Working Group established after the 2008 xenophobic attacks in South Africa, UNHCR has been working closely with the SAPS to develop early warning and rapid response for attacks against refugees and other foreign nationals. This has been put to the test this month.
Earlier in March, the quick response of UNHCR's Protection and Community Services staff to urgent text messages sent by refugees in the early morning prompted speedy police intervention in Atteridgeville, on the opposite side of Pretoria. Several refugee-owned shops were evacuated under police escort.
Driving with Hassam to Mamelodi East was an unusually quiet affair. "We're tired of this, my sister," he said. "When does it stop? When does it end?" Only a month before, Olympic Shop had been set alight and razed by unknown assailants. "It has only been operational for two weeks, and now this!" Hassam muttered.
Three Somali-owned shops were looted in Mamelodi last Tuesday. But at UNHCR's intervention, police provided an escort and protection to the owners of Olympic Shop while they emptied hundreds of dollars worth of stock.
Police reinforcements were called in from around Pretoria throughout the day. Armoured vehicles and rifle-toting officers charged into the warren of narrow dirt streets that are a feature of the informal settlements, repelling the advance of a community bent on protesting on Hans Strijdom Avenue.
The police and community leaders argued back and forth, with the latter having lost all authority with their discontented constituents. The police made clear their responsibility for maintaining law and order, giving community leaders the unenviable task of quelling the growing anger among their followers before the police did it for them.
The arrival of a senior municipal officer responsible for community safety did little to change the situation. Forced to retreat to Mamelodi Police Station, she called an impromptu meeting with the community leaders in an attempt to restore Phomolong to a semblance of normality.
By early evening an uneasy calm had settled over Phomolong Informal Settlement. Police officers took advantage of the quiet to take naps, with rifles at the ready. Others were drinking Coca Cola, courtesy of Olympic Shop; the owner's gesture of gratitude for helping them evacuate in safety.
Before the driver, Raxon Tshoambea, and I left Phomolong, I said farewell to the officers. They had been solicitous and protective throughout the day, ensuring that during the forays into the settlement, I didn't become a victim - testimony that UNHCR has made significant inroads in gaining the cooperation of the SAPS in providing safety, to refugees particularly, during the service delivery protests.