What a viral SMS says about safe but jittery SA

2015-04-19 15:00

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On the surface, it was business as usual in Hillbrow and Yeoville this past week – despite xenophobic violence flaring up in nearby Jeppe and filtering into downtown Joburg.

But beneath the facade there was plenty of tension.

A local policeman, who took us around the area, told us it was highly unlikely that foreign nationals would be attacked in Hillbrow because they were in the majority.

“The only likely scenario would be if South Africans, with the help of Zimbabweans, attacked minorities such as Somalis and Pakistanis,” he said.

But jittery nerves rose after a fear-mongering SMS was spread through the community on Thursday night.

It read that “a train full of Zulus”, armed to the teeth, was on its way to Joburg and Pretoria to “kill any foreigner it meets”.

By Friday several foreign-owned businesses in Hillbrow were closed.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened. A Cameroonian hairdresser, Mirabel, told us she had missed work on Wednesday for fear of attacks after a WhatsApp group of mainly Cameroonian nationals sent out a warning of impending attacks.

“The attacks might not have come to Hillbrow yet but psychologically we are scared. We live in fear and, as a mother, it is difficult not knowing whether I will ever make it back to my child,” she told City Press.

She insisted she had never been treated badly by any of her South African customers and said that deep down she doubted Hillbrow could be invaded.

Cameroonians, she said, were loving people who tried their best to make other people happy.

“Even though we do not have much, we are united and meet every month. When one of us or a family member dies, we contribute to send the body home and help with funeral arrangements. We also help each other if one of us wants to open a business or has a certain skill that can benefit other members.”

The same is true of all African communities in Hillbrow.

Nearby Yeoville is home to numerous African kitchens, shops and clubs.

Yeoville resident, recording artist Nakhane Touré, told City Press that this week he had heard Zulu-speaking South Africans talking among themselves, saying things like: “We love hating other people. And it will go one like this forever. Because we love to hate.”

A trader at the Yeoville market said “they haven’t arrived here yet”, and added that xenophobic mobs “would never come here”.

Yeoville has been a Pan-African suburb for so long that residents celebrate one another’s cultures.

But back in Hillbrow, Zimbabwean national Moses Jokoya, who works as security guard at a block of flats on Pretorius Street, said he and fellow Zimbabweans were afraid of being attacked. He said that in 2008 he and a colleague were badly hurt at a block of flats on the edge of Hillbrow when a group of passing rioters threw stones at them.

There was no such tension at the trendy Maboneng Precinct, close to Jeppe where shops were burned and looted this week.

Talla Niang’s restaurant House of Baobab has bold, bright decor and art and an eclectic menu of authentic East and West African cuisine.

“This place is about African excellence. Not just South African, or West African, but African. It’s about reclaiming our sense of pride in our achievements,” said the Senegalese restaurateur.

He pulled no punches on the subject of xenophobia, blaming ignorance and arrogance of both locals and foreigners, which he said stems from misinformation.

“We need to understand each other.

“How can South Africans say foreigners take local jobs and money, when there are huge South African businesses making millions all over Africa?”

Similarly, he believes migrants need to be dissuaded of the notion that South Africans are less hard-working. And he practises what he preaches, by employing his “family” of workers from all across the continent, including this country.

“Western depictions of Africa have distorted our idea of ourselves. This colonial mentality is where the trouble started.

“That’s the difference elsewhere in Africa. Yes, we were colonised, but our music, our language and our culture give us some kind of consciousness. That’s what I think South Africa needs.”

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