Xenophobia: Rubber bullets, tear gas, and pleas for it to stop

2015-04-18 09:50
(Tebogo Letsie, AP)

(Tebogo Letsie, AP)

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Johannesburg - Six people died this week and thousands were displaced as hostility between some locals and foreigners escalated in Durban and parts of Johannesburg.

Earliest reports show that the first sparks were at the end of March, when the Daily News reported that crisis talks had started in the province on March 31 after 170 foreigners were displaced, sleeping on police station lawns and in their cars.

This seemed to be as a result of anger over an Umlazi business firing staff and replacing them with foreign nationals. 

At the time, Major General Dumezweni Chiliza, the SAPS cluster commander for the area briefed people at a meeting in Isipingo, which included KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu. He has also repeatedly called for calm and arranged a peace march on Thursday to try and stop the violence.

Early details are that between Sunday night of March 29 and the morning of March 30 protesters blocked Ngini Road in Umlazi with stones, rocks and burning tyres because they were upset that foreigners had replaced a group of local staffers fired from a business in the area.

The protesters later chased after a man they claimed was carrying South African Identity Documents meant for the workers that were replacing them. He reportedly ran towards a house in the Isipingo CBD where a group of foreigners lived and people started stoning the house. The foreigners retaliated with stones and bricks.

Five minibus taxis at the nearby rank were damaged, angering conductors and drivers who joined the protesters. A shot was fired but it ricocheted off a wall.

At the time, Mchunu said it appeared that the foreigners were refugees and it was important that accommodation in line with laws regarding refugees was found.

On March 31, The Mercury published a story saying Congolese in Isipingo had come under siege. Congolese man Raphaely Fikiri, 30, said he had been living peacefully in Isipingo since 2006.

Then, mid-morning on March 30, they came under attack and there were not enough police officers to handle the crowd. Things were stolen from their businesses during this confrontation.

According to various reports, the Congolese in the town run small businesses like car repairs and tented barber shops.

Zwelithini's ‘deadline’

A controversy over Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini's comments at a moral regeneration event in Pongola on March 20 started gaining traction as being one of the causes of hostilities.

According to a translation from Zulu, he wanted foreigners who caused problems, such as crime, to leave the country.

A ''deadline'' for April 1 for this is reported.

The Royal Household Trusts chairperson Judge Jerome Ngwenya, denies the link between xenophobia and the king's comments, saying as far as he knows the violence started at a shopping complex where one foreigner shot another dead.

He also denied the king wanted foreigners to be deported.

“He did not use the word ‘foreigners’. He did not say the foreigners must leave. He said izigilamkhuba [thugs] who illegally enter the country and continue with their criminal activities must go back to their countries."

Watch an eNCA clip of the speech, with an English translation. 

On April 1, President Jacob Zuma’s eldest son, Edward Zuma, told News24.com: “We need to be aware that as a country we are sitting on a ticking time bomb of them [foreigners] taking over the country.

“The reason why I am saying that is because some of the foreigners are working for private security companies where they have been employed for cheap labour. These companies are running away from complying with South African labour laws.”

He said he fully agreed with Zwelithini’s sentiments that “foreigners needed to leave the country”.

The NorthGlen news reported on April 7 that it had been a bleak Easter weekend for about 21 foreign nationals, including four children, who had to leave the Siyathuthuka Informal Settlement at Sea Cow Lake after they were attacked. They were sleeping at the Greenwood police station.

Mugabe’s visit

Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, in South Africa for a state visit, thanked South Africa on April 8 for being accommodating towards Zimbabweans in the country, and for providing them with jobs.

But on April 9, Elinor Sisulu, the wife of former National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu, said Mugabe and Zuma had failed to deal with the "shit of xenophobia" in front of them and suspected the issue had not even been on their agenda.

''They sit on a table and there's lumps of shit on the table. The shit is xenophobia and it's stinking there, but they will look elsewhere to put the blame yet and say kukhona okunukayo [something stinks], open the windows. They don't deal with the shit. They talk about things which have no relevance to the people," she said at a press conference on xenophobia in South Africa hosted by the African Diaspora Forum in Johannesburg.

She said xenophobia was an issue all over the African continent.

On April 10 News24 reports that Zwelithini says: “I have already stated my concerns about crime in South Africa, and I am on record as having said there is no justification for murder, looting and attacks that we have seen being perpetrated against foreigners.” 

He said: “I am thus reiterating what I have always said.  All those who commit such crimes against anyone, whether foreign or local, should face the full might of the law.”

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said the problem was more case of ''Afrofobia'' than xenophobia and suggests camps for refugees in South Africa where they can be documented.

On the evening of Friday March 13, two Ethiopians are killed in the container that served as their shop and bedroom, in Isipingo.

Boko Haram ‘threat’

By Tuesday, the violence had spread to KwaMashu and to the Durban CBD, including the Dalton hostel. A 14-year-old boy dies after being shot three times.

Twitter and Facebook are used to express outrage, sadness and concern over the violence, but enough misrepresentations, confusion and hoaxes played out on social media to spur the police in KwaZulu-Natal to verify things before reposting and retweeting.

This includes a ''threat'' by Boko Haram - believed to be a hoax - that it would take action in South Africa if the xenophobic violence did not stop.

Embassies of countries on the continent started making plans to move their citizens out of South Africa and a backlash starts in Mozambique with a protest at a Sasol project where employees down tools and want the South Africans to leave.

Sasol brings over 300 South Africans employed directly by them or their service providers home as a temporary measure.

Netcare 911 brings home two staffers, and South African truck drivers say their vehicles are stoned in Mozambique.

Clashes in Durban's usually laid back CBD have police on the hop, firing rubber bullets and tear gas to break up groups of protesters, and putting out fires. Some violence is reported in Pietermaritzburg, and Johannesburg's Jeppestown.

Zuma’s call for calm

On Wednesday, President Jacob Zuma calls for calm in one radio bulletin after the other, and on television.

He is criticised for not dealing with his son Edward's comments, or Zwelithini's remarks.

In Parliament he is lambasted by EFF leader Julius Malema over the xenophobia with Malema saying government policies, landlessness and poverty is the real problem, not xenophobia.

A huge peace march takes place in Durban on Thursday, organised by the KwaZulu-Natal premier and government, churches and civic organisation but police have to marshal a hostile group away the peace march.

Humanitarian groups such as the Gift of the Givers, and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees express concern over the thousands of people displaced and living in tents in KwaZulu-Natal.

Many of Durban's CBD shops spent the week shuttered with no income.

On Friday afternoon Mchunu says Zwelithini wants to have a meeting to discuss his comments. This is expected to be on Monday.

International Relations Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane met African heads of diplomatic missions on Friday and sought to reassure them that the country was dealing with the recent spate of xenophobic attacks.

"We said that the violent attacks against foreign nationals in some parts of the provinces of KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng are despicable and that the South African government condemns them in the strongest terms possible," Nkoana-Mashabane said.

Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba said ''most foreign nationals make very positive contributions to society" and highlights contributions to South Africa's economy.

Poverty and unemployment

Analysts try to find the deeper reasons for the clashes. Many conclude that widespead poverty and unemployment are major factors.

On Friday evening, violence escalates in Johannesburg as metro police stop an angry group from setting two men alight in Protea Glen after they allegedly tried to rob a Pakistani businessman. The two and a third man are arrested in connection with the robbery.

A hostel in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, becomes a hotspot for a few hours, and officials had to remove a group of protesters from the freeways running past Denver.

State Security Minister David Mahlobo denied that the intelligence services were caught off guard by the attacks.

"When it [xenophobic attacks] started to flare-up our intelligence services were able to pick up these messages... we are starting to see co-ordination of these activities," Mahlobo said.

"Therefore, intelligence must be on alert and for this particular incident it is not correct to say intelligence were sleeping."

More anti-xenophobia marches are planned for the next week.

KwaZulu-Natal police said six people had died in that province and 112 were arrested for various crimes.

Read more on:    durban  |  johannesburg  |  crime  |  xenophobia

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