‘It’s payback, not xenophobia’

2013-06-02 14:01

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Siyabonga Sithole speaks to foreign shop owners after this week’s violence.

It was nearly midnight last Sunday when the young man made his way to the spaza shop in Diepsloot’s Section 7.

He was not there at that hour to stock up on bread and milk; he was there for “payback”.

The man in his early thirties, who earns his living as a taxi driver, admitted that he joined the mob of neighbours and made off with mobile airtime, snacks and soft drinks.

He said they looted the shop, owned by a man from Somalia, in retaliation for the fatal shooting of two locals by Bishar Isaack, another Somali store owner in the township.

“It was payback time and not xenophobia. We could not stand by and watch them get away with the shooting,” said the man who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Anyway, they are coming back. They have apologised and promised to pay for the funeral costs of the two community members who died on Sunday.”

Attacks on foreign-owned businesses began in Sebokeng in southern Gauteng last weekend and spread this week to Orange Farm, Evaton and Diepsloot in Johannesburg, and then to Kroonstad in the Free State and Greenfields in Port Elizabeth.

More than 80 people were arrested on charges ranging from public violence and theft to the possession of stolen goods. Isaack was arrested for murder.

Dino Jilley, chairperson of the Somali Association of SA, says this week’s violence was very different from the xenophobic attacks of five years ago in which 62 people were killed and tens of thousands displaced.

“This time around it’s not so much killing that is happening, but looting and destruction,” he said.

“There have been no incidents of blatant xenophobia in which foreigners have been chased out because they are foreigners.”

Gauteng community safety MEC Faith Mazibuko went to Diepsloot on Thursday to beg residents to stop looting the shops of “abosibali” (our brothers-in-law). From the pulpit of the Methodist Church hall in Extension 3, she preached about the mutually beneficial relationships foreign shop owners have forged with their local customers, charging them low prices, advancing them credit when they’re short of cash and paying rent to local landlords.

This week’s violence left many foreign shop owners with nowhere to sleep. Some loitered at the local police station for three days, while others returned to their looted shops, some of which had been burned.

Among them was Issa Jimale, who has run his shop in Diepsloot for three of the 16 years he has lived in South Africa.

“I have nothing, nowhere to go, and we sleep here at the police station without food,” he said on Wednesday. His last meal was scooped up off the floor of his looted shop, situated two streets away from the police station.

Nearby stood Pakistani shopkeeper Asim Nawaz, who has run his cellphone and electronics shop in Diepsloot since 2007. He had to flee during the xenophobic attacks of 2008 and lost everything then. This time he has lost “everything” again – between R45 000 and R50 000 in stock.

“It is difficult to build a shop like this from scratch because as you can see, the equipment is expensive,” he said.

“Even if I were to come back and rebuild, it would take me eight months or more to recover.”

Diepsloot’s Ethiopian shop owners decried the looting, saying they did nothing to deserve it. “We are a peaceful nation. We do not carry guns. We do not kill South Africans, but our shops are looted,” fumed Desalegn Foge Gande, who moved to South Africa in 2004. He opened his grocery store in Diepsloot last year after fleeing attacks in Atteridgeville in 2011.

The Ethiopian Community Association in South Africa said 80% of their members ran spaza shops or worked as door-to-door salesmen in townships.

“It has become dangerous to conduct business in South Africa. We appeal to the South African government to protect us,” said Fanna Dereje.

“We have children and families back home, but we cannot feed them because we have lost everything we have worked hard for.”

Professor Loren Landau, head of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA, said greed and “the quest for material possessions” was a motivating factor in attacks.

“The actions of police and government have reinforced the divisions within communities. To deal with these issues it is important that proper investigations are made to hold accountable those who perpetuate the violence against foreign nationals,” he said.

Back in Diepsloot’s Section 7, the taxi driver may not have felt sympathetic towards the shop owner he stole from, but others did. A woman standing in front of the shop said: “Ndiyabavela (I feel for them). It is not fair. They are also human. Just like us.”

Dudu Maruping, a customer, agreed: “I feel for the guys. These guys are cheap. Now we are struggling to buy basics such as bread and airtime.”

‘It’s payback, not xenophobia’

Public violence in Port Elizabeth not xenophobic in nature, say police

Police remain vigilant in Port Elizabeth, where a Somali shopkeeper was stabbed to death on Thursday.

Provincial police spokesperson Brigadier Marinda Mills said 21 people were arrested on Tuesday, 16 of whom appeared in the Port Elizabeth Magistrates’ Court on Wednesday.

They were released on warning.

Another five appeared on Friday and were remanded into custody for a formal bail application next week.

The 21 were charged with possession of stolen property, malicious damage to property, resisting arrest and public violence.

Nobody, however, had been arrested for the murder of the unnamed Somali shopkeeper.

Mills said police did not believe this week’s violence in Port Elizabeth’s northern areas was xenophobic in nature.

“There are some criminal elements. Some people have taken advantage of the situation, but we have placed our police in all the hot spots and things are starting to normalise there now,”

she said.

The violence began on Tuesday as vigilante attacks against gangsters in the area.

The community’s anger was then directed against Somali shop owners.

Two shops were burnt to the ground and 19 others were looted.

“We are calling on our people to stop taking the law into their own hands and not to interfere with police work,” Mills said on Friday. – Lubabalo Ngcukana

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