A service delivery protest morphed into an attack of foreign-owned stores in Sebokeng last week. The stores were vandalised and looted in a systematic campaign against foreigners in the area. The issues that first stoked the protest movement have been overshadowed by the orgy of theft and violence. By KHADIJA PATEL.
Daken Supermarket on Lerothodi Street in Zone 13 in Sebokeng stands deathly quiet on Saturday afternoon. The store, owned by a Somali national called Mohammed, was ransacked during the attacks on foreign-owned stores in Sebokeng last week. All that remains of the supermarket is the shell of the building. Everything from goods to fridges has been carried away during raids on foreign-owned stores.
Mohamed is at the local police station, lodging his complaints with the authorities. His landlord, an elderly gentleman who identifies himself as “Alex”, stands outside the store.
“I think I should become a Somalian now,” he says with a laugh. “This is the third time this is happening to me here.”
Inside, the store is empty. The floors are dusty with the remnants of what appears to be flour and maize meal. Cardboard boxes of other goods are the only clues that the empty room housed a small shop just days ago.
“Last week Saturday I was here and you couldn’t look inside the shop because the mielie meal was packed up so high here,” Elias Pholosi, a salesperson who works in Sebokeng every week, tells us.
Pholosi estimates the cost of the goods in the store to have been in excess of R100,000.
A fruit vendor, whose stall borders the shop, nods her agreement. She guides us to the back, into another empty room, and points out a pile of ash. She explains that this was the living quarters of the staff. Their clothes and bedding were burned, she tells us.
Photo: After looting the Daken Supermarket, vandals burnt the mattresses and belongings of the Somalis who lived in the back of the store. (Greg Nicolson)
On Saturday the African Union celebrated its golden jubilee. As President Zuma joined other African heads of state in the pomp and ceremony that marked the 50th anniversary of the African Union, he hailed one of its founding principles, African unity. “Today we recall that the OAU was founded against the backdrop of promoting the unity and solidarity of African States…” Zuma said. Yet it is precisely this sense of African unity that was missing from Sebokeng, 60km south of Johannesburg over the last week.
Foreign-owned stores were systematically attacked in a wave of violence that left foreigners fearing for their lives.
One such storeowner, a Bangladeshi national who did not want to be named, said he was left with no other option but to flee Sebokeng.
“I was fearing for my life,” he said over the telephone.
“But would you consider returning now that the worst seemed to be over?” we asked.
“No, I am afraid for my life.”
As normalcy appeared to have resumed through Sebokeng, with residents carrying on with their lives after days of violent protest, the only sign of something amiss was the closed storefronts of foreign-owned businesses.
“People really don’t like foreigners here,” Mpho Ngake says.
He is a young man from Sebokeng’s zone six, where the first rumblings of unrest began two weeks ago.
“They see these people are making a lot of money and it stays with them,” Ngake said. “They feel like these people are taking from us only.”
“I was not really surprised that the [foreign-owned] shops were targeted, because in 2008, when there were the xenophobia attacks, they attacked them also.”
But Ngake, like other Sebokeng residents we spoke to, admitted that the attacks on the foreign stores were ultimately short-sighted. They pointed out that all the foreign shop owners paid rent, some who had stores inside the homes of Sebokeng residents paid rent to “grandmothers”. They lament the effects these attacks will have on life in township in the next month if foreign shop owners are not able to pay their rent.
“These guys have been our friends,” Ngake said. “They help us and we help them when they need some help.”
Ngake and his friends, like many other residents of Sebokeng, blame criminal elements in the community for the attacks on foreign shop owners.
“It’s mostly Nyaope smokers,” Ngake says. (Nyaope is a mixture of heroin and marijuana and is smoked the same way as dagga.)
“When the strike was planned there was nothing about raiding shops, no damages, nothing. Now they are taking advantage of the strike because you can’t control a mob.
“These addicts took the stock from the [foreign-owned] shops and sold it to other shops so they can buy [narcotics].
“Nyaope is a very big problem here in the Vaal for young people,” Ngake says.
His friend Teboho Mgcina says they have been able to ward off the lure of nyope by spending their free time playing soccer.
“But now there is no grounds for us to play soccer here also,” he says.
“That’s why they complained because there’s no sports facilities and that is why most of the young people end up doing drugs and all this stuff.”
The attacks on the foreign-owned shops and the subsequent looting sprouted from a “service delivery” protest – residents from Sebokeng’s zone six had begun to raise their voices over the lack of tarred roads and recreational facilities.
“The people wanted roads,” Mgcina says.
The irony of his statement lay in the background of our conversation. We stood on a road, a dual carriageway, that was under construction in Zone Six. Ten metres away from us a small group of road construction workers sat. This was a project from the Department of Housing. Residents complain that the road has already taken far too long to complete. And while progress on the roads remains slow and dogged as well by legal challenges, residents feel other areas in Sebokeng are being neglected.
“They were complaining that they wanted roads because the contract took so long because they never hire people from here,” Ngcake says. “They were supposed to hire 20 people but they hired only six, and they are not from zone six.”
“Jobs are a big problem here, and even when this contract came here we did not know how to get the work,” Ngcake says. “There are so many people here who have the qualifications but they were not hired.”
Dissatisfaction with the way in which labourers were hired by the contractors, a company from Limpopo, is a recurrent theme in conversations with Sebokeng residents.
“Even the foreman, the middle manager, is not from South Africa,” complained Ngcake, demonstrating the extent to which resentment against foreigners runs here.
And these issues, about roads and the employment of local residents by contractors in infrastructure development projects, drove a group of Sebokeng residents to launch protest action against their councillor. That protest action soon morphed into a campaign to drive out foreign-owned businesses.
“From here in Zone Seven to Zone 13 and the whole of Evaton and now all the Somalis are gone,” Ngcake said.
And yet beneath the looting and violence remains the unresolved issues of a community who feel let down by their elected official.
“The people want the councillor to [resign]. They don’t want him to be in charge any more.”
“People are complaining that because he lives in zone seven he is doing roads and pavements in zone seven but in zone six he’s doing nothing,” Mgcina says.
“We don’t have a hall here in zone six. We don’t have sports facilities.”
“Most of the time the councillor makes empty promises; that’s why the people are taking action into their own hands now.
“The people were not being heard when they complained.”
The councillor, Joseph “Bozzy” Lehlaka, insists that many of the demands of the protesters fall outside of his area of influence in the local government.
The Limpopo company constructing the road in Zone Six say they hired local residents through the councillor.
The councillor, however, insists that he is not directly responsible for recruitment, arguing that the vacancies were filled by a lottery system – residents seeking employment and who attended ward meetings would place their names in a hat.
Councillor Bozzy, as he’s known, says that during one of his routine meetings with the community he ran into a problem when he began to insist residents pay for services (rates and taxes).
“They said they can’t pay for services,” Bozzy said.
“They say, ‘No. They want streets. They want the tarred roads.’ I said, ‘Yes, I put it there for [Infrastructure Development Projects] but the problem is finance. Even all of you here are not paying.”
“They started fighting, saying they are fighting for all the roads to be tarred. I said, ‘That’s good, but I can’t promise you anything will happen from that’.”
“Now I was waiting for the mayor because he’s the one who can solve the problem. But the person who caused [this problem] is the speaker [of the council] who came there after the community was complaining about petitions that they submitted to the speaker since last year. So from the speaker, if he addressed the problem of the petitions, then it was easy. Now he says [to the residents complaining about roads]: I will give you the answer within seven days.”
Bozzy blames the unrest in Sebokeng on the speaker who reneged on his promise to respond favourably to the community’s demands within seven days.
“It seems like the speaker did not go to the mayor because the mayor was not involved,” Bozzy says.
He says he returned to a community meeting seven days later with news about the constraints of the budget, much to the disappointment of the residents who had gathered in expectation of good news from the speaker.
“That’s when they started to make the problem. They told me they are going to close the roads and then they started looting every shop here.
“I am a councillor for fifteen years; I cannot lie to the people,” he insists.
“If I say there is no money, it is the truth.”
When pressed on why the speaker of the council was able to address a community meeting in which he was actually the elected representative, he said, “I’m so surprised. I don’t know what was his intention. Why even after taking the reports didn’t he take it to the mayor?”
“You know, I don’t know what was his intention was.”
“It is the politics of the ANC right now.”
A group of community activists who were guarding a South African-owned store from attack warned that the protest was far from over – they were in the process of submitting an application to hold a march against the councillor this week.
They say their emphasis will be on ensuring local residents are hired in the various infrastructure development projects currently underway in the area.
A few minutes from Bozzy’s home, we find police officers searching homes in the hunt of looted goods. The police van is already filled with recovered goods – among the groceries was a DVD player and a Hi-fi.
Photo: Jeffrey Sheshabela displays some of the goods police recovered after the community gave the property owner tip offs on who looted his Chinese tenants’ store.
Jeffrey Sheshabela, a Sebokeng resident who accompanied the police, tells us he ran a store in Orange Farm until recently, when he decided to lease his property to a Chinese businessman. A crowd attacked the store last week, stealing an estimated R1 million worth of goods.
“On the day they were breaking in, I was one and alone against many people,” says Shesabela. “They said if I love my family I must stop and let them pass.”
Sheshabela spent Saturday touring the area with police searching houses as he received tip-offs from locals who were angry about the looting. “I could not stomach it,” he says. The Chinese storeowner was only operating for two weeks before his shop was cleared out. “Ever since the incident he has been crying because part of the stock was on credit.”
The worst of the violence and looting appears to have been quelled, but one South African shop owner is incredulous at the police’s claims.
“If the police say they have this under control, they are lying,” he says.
But as the police battle to regain control and as the election draws closer, politics will take precedence. One road under construction in Zone Seven, which we visited with Bozzy, had been lying untarred for months. That afternoon, the road was covered in tar. DM
Additional reporting by Greg Nicolson and Thapelo Lekgowa
*Where names have been omitted in the story, it is for the protection of those interviewed.
Note: A previous version of this article referred to the drug as “nyope”, the spelling has now been corrected to “nyaope”.
Main photo: Local resident Alex stands outside the Daken Supermarket where he joined the stores Somali owners to fight a surging crowd of looters. Eventually, Alex and the Somalis fled for their safety, leaving the crowd to loot the store, including its stock and equipment such as fridges. (Greg Nicolson)
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