Xenophobic violence: Where did it all begin?

Near Jeena’s Warehouse in Isipingo, there’s a pungent smell of chickens and goats, mixed with muti from the nearby market.

Everyone goes about their business as if no one remembers the xenophobic attacks that flared up there three weeks ago and spread rapidly to other parts of KwaZulu-Natal and into Gauteng.

Those on strike at the supermarket, which KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu and State Security Minister David Mahlobo identified as ground zero for the attacks, say they had nothing to do with them.

Close to half of Jeena’s employees went on strike on December 15 for higher wages and bonuses. The supermarket is one of the oldest in the area and one of its biggest employers.

Jobs are hard to come by in Isipingo. According to the 2011 census, the neighbourhood, with a population of 19?387, has an employment rate of 37.4%.

The average household income is R2?400 a month.

Wholesaler Goolam Khan says he was forced to hire new staff when almost 50 of his employees went on strike. He denies that the casual workers he hired in their place were foreigners, saying he has a strict policy of hiring locals.

“If you don’t have a South African ID, you don’t get the job. My workers’ records are open to anyone who needs proof,” he said.

But he did hire a security company after strikers picketed outside his shop and, he claims, began vandalising property and intimidating customers. The security company employs foreigners – that’s what many believe sparked the first wave of attacks.

Mchunu said the “dominant” view was that the strike triggered the violence.

“What sparked the whole of what we are seeing now is a supermarket, KwaJeena in Isipingo, where there was a strike of sorts.

“The owners of this supermarket replaced registered or permanent employees with scab labour in the form of foreign nationals, so the story goes. Whether it is true or false, that is the perception and that is what is dominant,” Mchunu said.

However, the striking employees huddled together at the taxi rank opposite the supermarket say their strike had nothing to do with the attacks.

Mxolisi Jawuse said on March 30, while picketing outside the supermarket, community members joined them.

“People who already had their own problems joined us and started the whole thing. If we had anything to do with the attacks, we would have started it in December.”

But another employee said: “We are part of the community and they know our struggles. Shoppers had guns pointed at them and their shopping bags checked by foreigners. How would you feel if someone from outside was making you feel like a criminal in your own country?”

When the attacks began, the supermarket closed its doors for two days. Protesters moved from there to the rest of Isipingo, where the streets are lined with foreign-owned shops, and the violence began.

For now, Isipingo has returned to normal – foreign nationals and locals mingle in the streets and sell their wares side by side.

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