'At least I am alive and safe': Xenophobic violence spreads to Alexandra where it started in 2008

An immigrant shop owner in Alexandra recounted how he had to escape through a window when a group of people tried to break down the doors and set it alight, GroundUp reports.

On Tuesday, Mizam Ahmad, one of the Bangladeshi shop owners in Alexandra, was carrying salvageable stock like speakers, radios, sweets and other goods out of his uncle’s shop and loading it into a van. The pavement outside the shop was strewn with burnt fruit, vegetables, tables, trolleys and chairs which belonged to street vendors who usually leave their stock there overnight.

He was one of the immigrant shop owners salvaging what was left of their stock after a group of unidentified people looted and burnt their shops.

The streets were covered in rubbish and rubble when GroundUp visited the area on Tuesday morning.

Second Street and West Street were cordoned off by police who were letting only shop owners through to assess the damage and collect leftover stock. Emergency water services were dispatched to the area to put out the fires that were still burning.

The xenophobic violence in Alexandra followed similar attacks on mostly immigrant-owned shops across Johannesburg. The attacks started in Jeppestown on Sunday and had spread to Alexandra, Tembisa, Germiston, Kempton Park, Coronation Park, Turffontein and Malvern by Tuesday.

The wave of xenophobic violence that spread across South Africa in 2008 started in Alexandra.

“Those things that were burnt are just material things. At least I am alive and safe”

Ahmad told GroundUp that the attacks on the shops along West Street and 2nd Street started at about 20:00 on Monday. His shop, which is on the street adjacent to his uncle’s, was also looted and set alight. Liquor City, which is on the corner of the same street as the immigrant shops, was also looted.

Ahmad moved to South Africa three years ago because his uncle and other family members owned shops and said he could make a living in the country. He first lived in Marlboro, next to Alexandra, but he said he did not enjoy travelling to and from Alexandra every day so he made himself a bedroom in his shop.

He has been living in his shop for the past six months.

READ | Parliament to intervene in 'ongoing violent tensions' against foreign nationals

Ahmad said he was in his bedroom when the group tried to break the doors and set it alight. He said they did not know he was in the building at the time. He managed to escape through a window and jumped onto another building next door which was also set alight by the group.

“Those things that were burnt are just material things. At least I am alive and safe,” said Ahmad.

“But I don’t think I can stay here anymore. It is not safe and this happens every year. What’s the point if it gets burnt to the ground every year and we have to start again? I think I will go back to Bangladesh and work in a clothing factory or something. At least there I can make some money and be safe. But here, my life is in danger.”

Alexandra watches as Emergency Water Services staf
A shop owner in Alexandra watches as Emergency Water Services staff try to extinguish a fire in one of the shops. (Zoë Postman, GroundUp)

Premier David Makhura visited the area on Tuesday and spoke to some of the shop owners as he assessed the damage. He said criminals had taken over in many areas by burning down buildings and looting shops.

“Others have said that there is a xenophobic sentiment underlying this saying that foreigners have to leave … We are a democratic society. We can’t allow the people to take the law into their own hands. There is no country that doesn’t have foreign nationals,” he said.

He said he could tell that the looters were well organised “criminal syndicates” by the type of tools they used to break down the doors of the shops.

READ MORE | Makhura threatens to bring in army if Gauteng unrest continues

“We can see that this was informed by a criminal motive because everything was stolen from these buildings after which they were torched … I will not hesitate to call on the Minister of Police and the head of the army to reinforce the policing if the situation gets worse,” he said. But he said the police were capable of handling the situation at this point so the army was not necessary.

“We are also dealing with illegal and undocumented foreign nationals because that’s a big challenge. People crossing borders are not just bringing themselves but … also counterfeit goods. We have to strengthen border security but we can do that without resorting to xenophobic violence,” he said. “We must address these issues from the point of view of law enforcement. Law enforcement agencies must do their work … Crime is crime, regardless of nationality.”

Makhura said more than 80 people had been arrested across Gauteng and seven people had been arrested in Alexandra. He said the people arrested in Alexandra “were caught helping themselves” to stock in the early hours of the morning.

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