Xenophobic attacks - pattern changing

Johannesburg - Attacks against foreigners this year are part of a changing pattern connecting legitimate protests to xenophobic violence, an expert said on Tuesday.

Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA spokesperson Gwada Majange said some of the six reported incidents this year were examples of a new type of xenophobic attack.

They originated from protests about service delivery or unemployment.

"You've seen informal traders protest [against the] municipality, but in the end they directed their anger toward the spaza shop owners," Majange said.

The six reported attacks this year had resulted in the injury of at least eight victims, with 42 shops and businesses burnt or looted, 273 people arrested and more than 600 displaced.

The first one was in February, when eight foreigners were assaulted in Doornkuil, near Johannesburg.

The men, from Zimbabwe and Malawi, were sleeping in their shack when five youths armed with knobkerries and clubs attacked and robbed them.

Police could not say for certain whether the motive for the attack was xenophobia or robbery

However, they noted that resentment could have been a factor, as all eight men worked for a local construction company in the area.

This was followed by four nights of looting around Thabong, in the Free State. More than 20 businesses, mostly owned by Bangladeshis, were looted and 42 people were arrested.

These attacks began as unemployment protests, after some local youths were unable to get jobs at Welkom's mines.

The protests soon spread to surrounding localities, including Mshenguville and Themba.

Local police did not ascribe a motive to the looting, but did not rule out xenophobia.

The Thabong attacks were followed by similar incidents over three days in Kutloanong which resulted in damage to 16 businesses and seven arrests. Police had to escort foreigners out of the area.

Free State Premier Ace Magashule decried the attacks as a violation of the Constitution.

"These attacks violate the fundamental principles of our Constitution, which rejects discrimination and intolerance on the basis of race, creed or geographic origin," Magashule said.

Later that month, a strike by miners at the Impala mine near Phokeng, in North West, culminated in an attack that resulted in 32 shops being looted and almost 100 foreigners displaced in nearby Freedomville.

Almost 130 people were arrested.

North West police spokesperson Brigadier Thulani Ngubani, while noting that most of the victims were foreigners, denied that the attacks were xenophobic.

He said they were targeted against the businesses, not the foreigners who owned them.

Reports of xenophobic attacks went quiet for the next few months until May when residents of Phagameng township near Modimolle, in Limpopo, attacked and looted shops owned by Pakistanis and Ethiopians.

About 30 foreign families were displaced and over a hundred people were arrested.

This was sparked by the arrest of a Pakistani man for the alleged killing of his South African girlfriend.

Shops petrol-bombed

The Free State was again the location of xenophobic attacks a month later when businesses and homes owned by Somalians, Chinese and Ethiopians were looted and burned in Botshabelo.

Over 500 people were displaced in these attacks and more than 100 had been arrested by the time the violence died down.

However, just as one location quietened, another flared up with the petrol-bombing of shops owned by foreigners in Beacon Valley, in the Western Cape.

Police said four tuckshops owned by two Bangladeshis, a Somali and a Pakistani were set alight within minutes of each other. One person was injured.

Majange said the incidents in Free State, where xenophobic attacks followed protests against unemployment and the strike by miners, were an example of the new type of xenophobic attack.

"It seems these non-nationals are being used as scapegoats for bigger issues that people are trying to challenge," she said.

However, she added that at least one of the xenophobic attacks this year was linked to simple extortion and organised crime.

Majange said the spaza shop owners in Beacon Valley appeared to have been attacked as the result of a protection racket run by local gangs.

"The case was around a protection fee that gangs requested from shop owners," she said.

While the motivation may have been different, the choice of victim was no accident.

"I'm sure there are some South African spaza shop owners who didn't have the money to pay the gangsters, but for some reason people feel it is easier to vent their anger on non-nationals," Majange said.

She said this came from a perception that it was easier to get away with a crime against a foreigner.

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