Jeppestown Wolhuter men’s hostel in Johannesburg has been the centre of the recent violent attacks on foreigners.
But the hostel’s chief says that the hostel residents are being used as scapegoats by criminals.
The attacks that hit Joburg followed the violence in Pretoria that flared up after the death of taxi driver who was killed when he allegedly tried to stop drug dealers dealing drugs on August 26.
A week later, looting started after a fire broke out in a building in Karl street in Wolhuter, Jeppestown in Johannesburg on September 1. The fire was started after a fight between a couple.
As the fire ravaged the building the couple lived in people looted shops in the area.
The violence spread from there to Jules street, where more than a 100 cars from dealerships mostly owned by foreigners were set alight. The violence soon spread to other parts of Gauteng province, such as Katlehong. 12 people died due to the violent protests, 10 of whom were South African.
The chief, Manyathela Mvelase, said the violence started with a piece of paper.
“There was a letter plastered all over the hostel. That letter was put everywhere, including the gate of the hostel, without the permission of the chiefs.”
Mvelase said that the letter, which was written in isiZulu, was a call to arms. It called for South Africans to take back their country on September 2.
“Enough with the selling of drugs, enough with people taking our houses, enough with people taking our jobs,” the letter reads.
"When we saw that letter we didn’t make much of it."
“It worried me that someone would go around the hostels without our permission but we didn’t think that people would take it seriously,” Mvelase said.
Mvelase said that a series of unfortunate events followed the letter being distributed and all these events culminated in the violence.
“On September 1 a quarrel between a couple led to the deaths of three people in a fire on Karl Street. People saw the fire and assumed that it was the start of the ‘South Africa shutdown’ that was talked about in the letter,” Mvelase said.
Mvelase said what was sad about the whole situation said that instead of people helping out in the fire, people saw an opportunity to loot and cause chaos.
“The people who died in that fire were people from the hostel. But no one cares about them. Their deaths were seen as an opportunity for criminality,” Mvelase said.
Mvelase said the hostel’s leaders knew better than to use hate in leading people.
“Real leaders use the truth to lead,” he said.
“The people who wrote that letter must stop hiding behind the scenes. They must come out and take responsibility for helping incite the violence,” Mvelase said.
Sizathu Mkhize, who is the treasurer-general of Sisonke Peoples Forum Hlanganani Makhosi Ohlanga of South Africa – the organisation that wrote and distributed the letter – said that they never called for xenophobia.
“Even in our letter we say that this is not xenophobia but the concrete truth,” Mkhize said.
“When we wrote that letter we were calling for people to peacefully take back their country; go to the streets and [get the] government to do something about the criminals from outside the country who have taken over our country,” Mkhize said.
But the hostel dwellers were frustrated, and felt that they had been neglected by the government.
“We have been neglected. 25 years since the dawn of democracy and the hostel has not seen any fruits of democracy. We vote governments in and out and they all do not care about what happens here,” Mvelase said.
“The government must also take responsibility for these attacks. People from the hostels would have never taken part in any of these acts if government did their job. The hostel stinks, there’s sewage everywhere, rubbish every corner and the buildings are falling apart,” he said.
Catro Ngobese, spokesperson for the MEC for human settlements, urban planning and cooperative governance and traditional affairs Lebogang Maile, said refurbishment of hostels was a priority.
“We have plans in place to transform hostels into family units. Before the end of the year, Jeppe hostel will receive a facelift,” he said.