Inside the angry xenophobic mob

2015-04-19 15:00

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The message from those who had gathered outside the Jeppe Hostel was loud and clear.

A royal decree that the amakwerekwere should pack and go had been issued, and “abahambe, uma kungenjalo sizobabulala”.

Sifiso Mbambo told the approximately 200 people who had gathered on the street outside on ­Friday morning that if the foreigners would not leave, they would have to be killed.

It was not an empty threat. Armed with screwdrivers, axes, beer bottles, machetes, rocks, spears, shields, knobkerries and sledgehammers, they were ready to make good on their promise.

“Wathela wayeka (It’s open season on foreigners),” Mbambo proclaimed while holding aloft a razor-sharp tomahawk. His eyes scanned his surroundings for foreigners.

“Amakwerekwere awahambe abuyele eMozambique (Let the foreigners go back to Mozambique),” the group of young men and some women chanted, brimming with anger and frustration. While they sang, they moved towards a group of about 100 foreigners hiding behind a bank of police officers along Jeppe Street.

They demanded that the police should give them access to the objects of their anger.

“The police and our government will not realise that we are serious until we spill blood,” said one of the men, who urged the police to take a 30-minute break so they could “deal with the foreigners”.

For those who had gathered and were whistling, dancing and clapping along the glass- and tyre-strewn streets of

Joburg’s inner city, it was a “noble and sacred” mission, in Mbambo’s words, to rid the country of foreigners.

It was so because King Goodwill Zwelithini had told the foreigners to go home.

The xenophobic violence that began in Durban three weeks ago spread to the Joburg inner-city neighbourhood of Jeppestown late on Thursday afternoon, when about 50 residents of the Jeppe Hostel broke into a foreign-owned shop in Malvern and emptied it in under 10 minutes.

The command of the king

By Friday afternoon, police had their automatic rifles cocked and warned Mbambo and his neighbours from the hostel to keep their distance from the foreigners and their property.

Mbambo told the crowd: “Ukhulumile uNgangezwe Lakhe, umlomo ongathethi manga. Amazwi eSilo kufanele afezeke! (The king has spoken. He is the mouth that tells no lies. His wishes must be fulfilled!)”

Mbambo (35), was born in the northern KwaZulu-Natal district of uMsinga and moved to Joburg three months ago in search of a better life. He shares a single room in the Jeppe Hostel with four other men, all unemployed like him. He sleeps on a thin sponge mattress.

Mbambo, who addresses the crowd in a loud voice, spoke quietly about his circumstances. He blamed the foreigners for the fact that he has never been employed. He said he had a girlfriend at home, but no children

Next to Mbambo along Jeppe Street, Fohla Sithole, who also comes from uMsinga, explained: “ISilo asijwayelanga ukuphawula emphakathini ngezinto ezibalulekile ezithinta isizwe. Uma usizwa sikhuluma kanje, kusho ukuthi izinto zonakele. Kubi mfowethu. Abafokazana sebegwcele wonke amadolobha amakhulu akuleli. Thina asisakwazi ukwenza lutho (The king doesn’t really speak often on issues of ­national importance. For him to speak like this, you must know that things are out of control, they are bad my brother. These quasi-men have taken over every major city in South Africa, leaving us with no space to move.)”

No jobs, no hope

Unemployed and without any education, Sithole said his greatest fear was that his lot in life was tied to the hostel – a grimy, crime-ridden and dangerous neighbourhood

notorious for rape and murders. A job, he said, was his only ticket out.

Most hostels across Gauteng are old and derelict, with broken pipes and blocked drains.

Sithole asked: “Awusho, kungani kumele ngincenge umsebenzi ezweni lami? Ungasiboni sihlabelela, sisina ucabange ukuthi sijabulile (Tell me, why should I beg for a job in my own country? You see us singing and dancing and you think we are happy.)”

Another man who lives in the hostel, but refused to reveal his name, agreed.

“Ngaso sonke isikhathi uma sifuna umsebenzi sithola ukuthi abaphathi bangabantu base Zimbabwe noma eNigeria, basitshele ukuthi umsebensi awukho. (Every time we go looking for jobs in factories and companies, we are met by Zimbabweans and Nigerians who tell us there are no jobs. I really don’t think this happens in other countries.)”

Pointing towards men sitting on top of the hostel’s roof and stairs he said: “Look Masondo, it’s Friday, but there are so many men idling around without jobs. It’s because of these foreigners. Let them go.”

March goes wrong in Durban

The day before Mbambo and his neighbours took to the streets, a peace march in Durban turned violent after a group of about 100 anti-xenophobia protesters singing solidarity struggle songs rounded the corner towards the taxi rank on Anton Lembede Street.

They fell behind and joined residents on the pavement that is lined with department stores and banks.

But the taxi commuters and drivers did not share their views.

A man in his mid-30s wearing blue overalls and white takkies waved a stick above his head and a crowd surrounded him as he jumped, danced and shouted: “Asiwafuni amakwerekwere! (We don’t want the foreigners!)”

A middle-aged woman who was waiting for the taxi with her shopping bags yelled at the passing crowd: “Mabahambe! asibafuni! (They must go! We don’t want them here!)”

She wasn’t the only one. There was a stand-off as the peace marchers reached the city hall.

“You can have your little marches. We don’t care. We want these people gone.

“They can’t be in our country and do as they please,” said a man who had joined the others who had lined the streets to oppose the peace march.

As tensions grew, shops closed their doors. Employees stared at the crowd through glass and burglar bars. The crowd began to attack a few foreigners on the streets and were chased through the taxi rank by police. The sound of rubber bullets rang out as foreigners and locals hurled rocks and debris at each other.

The police brought in water cannons and reinforcements, but the crowd was undeterred.

“Why are you protecting foreigners, but when we need you are never there?” a protester demanded of a police officer while running away from the shots. “You are useless police! Mabahambe (Let them go). Go home, voetsek!”

After a woman’s shopping bags, clothes and hair were drenched by the water cannon, protesters took her to a police officer who told her to report what had happened to police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

But the crowd wasn’t satisfied.

“How dare you speak to us like that? You are busy protecting foreigners at our expense. Look at her,” said one man.

As the police chased crowds down alleys trying to disperse them, they continued to chant: “Mabahambe!”

In Johannesburg the next day, rubber bullets reigned supreme as police opened fire each time they felt anarchy was imminent.

A few metres away from Mbambo and Sithole, Musa Phakathi said all foreigners should be shipped back to their countries.

“I mean all of them – not one should remain. From there we have to tighten our borders, and no one must come in without papers. When they want to come in again they must produce papers, tell us what skills they are bringing, why they are coming in and how long they intend staying. This is what they do when they go overseas, so what makes them think South Africa is a free-for-all?”

Phakathi, a security guard who recently lost his job, said foreigners were a problem because they were willing to work for next to nothing.

“And when, for some reason, they don’t get paid at the end of the month, they don’t complain. When I complain, the bosses target me and say South Africans are full of s**t.”

Phakathi, from Emnambithi in KwaZulu-Natal, who also shares a cramped hostel room, said he had more than enough reason to be angry at foreigners – a foreigner pushed him out of a job. He is now battling to support his two-year-old daughter.

“The majority of employees at the security company I worked for are Zimbabwean. My manager was also a Zimbabwean and he pushed me out saying I talk too much. And I was only standing up for my rights. Now I’m sitting, unemployed, unable to support my daughter and my wife. I don’t want to live in a hostel, I want to live in a proper house with my family.”

Sensing impending danger late on Friday morning, the police asked the foreigners to pack up and leave. Some did, hiring trucks that left under police escort. The area is home to an array of automotive businesses owned by foreigners mainly from Nigeria, and others from Mozambique.

There are panel beaters, spray painters and motor repairs with brightly coloured signs. Some businesspeople, who buy and repair accident-damaged cars, hired tow trucks to remove them.

But other foreigners refused to leave.

A few metres away from the hostel residents, and behind 10 armed police and their vehicles, Happy Obi from Nigeria said he refused to budge.

“If the police allow us, we will fight to the death,” he said.

Pointing towards the hostel, and with the same rage in his eyes as Mbambo, Obi said: “We can sink this place. We are not afraid of them. We also know violence. We were involved in the killings in the Niger Delta. We just respect them because this is their country.”

With a garden fork and an iron rod in his hands, he said: “What they are doing is not good, we are all Africans. We are not [Jacob] Zuma. We are not responsible for the economy going down. We give them money, we employ them, they are lazy and not ready to work and they still do this to us.”

In the evening, more people joined Mbambo and Sithole after they returned to the hostel from work. As the crowd grew, jittery police officers fired rubber bullets at them, they responded by throwing stones back at the officers.

Some people took refuge inside the hostel, while others were engaged in running battles with the police in their armoured vehicles, up and down Jeppe Street.

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