South Africa

Hour-by-hour, Soweto xenophobia spirals into disgrace

By BC Simelane & Greg Nicolson 23 January 2015

The Soweto looting has spread. It's out of control, with residents targeting foreigners' stores across the township. The police cannot contain it. What started in Snake Park now touches home, a home that accepts foreigners until there's time to force them out. By BHEKI C. SIMELANE & GREG NICOLSON.

Thursday, 09:35, Naledi: Helicopters were heard overhead Wednesday night. The looting at Snake Park (foreigners stores only) spread to Emdeni, Zola and Protea Glen. There’s another fatality. First it was 14 year old Siphiwe Mahori, shot in the neck at Snake Park’s Raso Supermarket. Overnight, violence spread to Dobsonville and Mapetla, where another man was shot dead while a store was looted.

A burned tire and rubbish lie discarded on the street. The foreign-owned stores are closed. One looks like it’s been broken into. A South African in whose yard sits a store owned by a Pakastani says it’s happening everywhere.

12:00, Parktown: The top cops are at the Gauteng SAPS headquarters. Sixty-eight people have been arrested, including eight foreign nationals. Seven unlicensed firearms have been recovered. “Members of the community are warned not to take the law into their own hands. Police are taking strong action and will not let lawlessness prevail. At 09:30 this morning, 81 shops had been looted,” says the official statement.

12:30, Soweto: Tweets from the area say looters attacked foreign-owned stores in White City, evading police who couldn’t keep up. Stores in Meadowlands are looted.

12:40, Parktown: Gauteng Police Commissioner Lieutenant General Lesetja Mothiba tells Daily Maverick, “There’s very much serious challenges in the policing especially of this particular incident. Firstly as we have explained the whole situation started after the shooting, the killing of that boy, and then other community members started mobilising and then they started looting. Now in terms of this type of crime, you must have correct and up to date information especially on where are all these people that are vulnerable but secondly where are all these shops. Now all these shops are informal shops. Many of them is where someone converted a garage into a shop. They are more in the residential areas. Because they are informal they are not registered with the local authority and it is making the police work very much difficult and the number and quality of information that comes is making the police more reactive because we would want to prevent the lootings but unfortunately it is very much difficult because we don’t know where all these shops are.

Mothiba encourages foreigners to become part of the community they work in and join community policing forums. “Because when these incidents happen we’d want the local to protect them because they can’t protect themselves. They are being outnumbered.”

13:35, Johannesburg: Mr Lechesa, 32, who saw last night’s violence in Mapetla and only wants his surname mentioned, says on Wednesday around 20:00 he was on his way home and saw a group of people outside the hostel. He asked them what was happening; he knew before he got the answer. The shops were being looted and foreigners told to leave. He couldn’t recognise the looters.

Due to the fact that the people who were doing this last night were not familiar, there’s widespread belief that there’s a gang that goes from township to township perpetrating the chaos,” he says. A man was shot around 23:00. He was one of the people looting and was shot by a Pakistani owner, claims Lechesa. Police came and dispersed the crowd. Lechesa left because it was late.

14:25, White City: Around five cop cars are on the scene and 16 cops. Police officers say the situation is under control. They managed to calm residents and are about to leave. They say they were instructed to tell all foreigners to close their shops. Looting started in the morning until the police arrived. Here, the stores are empty and locals lean against their walls. Gates hang off the hinges of two stores. Shelves have been tipped over, there’s nothing on the floor. Everything is gone. One man carries a packet of Simba chips down the street. Behind him, another holds a crate of cold drink. Others, with various loot, rush in all directions.

16:00, Johannesburg: The attacks on foreigners’ stores follows the 2008 attacks on black Africans living in South Africa and numerous incidents since. That memory is still present. We walk past the Johannesburg Central Methodist Church, which recently closed its doors to residents, some of whom fled the 2008 attacks. Zimbabweans staying there, now looking for alternative accommodation, recently told Daily Maverick they wouldn’t go to Soweto, where Bishop Paul Verryn had offered a place to stay, because they know how foreigners are treated.

Cosatu condemns the Soweto looting. “The problems we face – unemployment, poverty and crime – must never be blamed on people on the basis of their country of origin. These problems are structural, rooted in years of colonialism and apartheid capitalism which kept the majority of South Africans in desperate poverty and denied them any democratic means to improve their plight, not by foreign nationals, who are themselves victims of the same problems of competing for limited resources, in the context of increasingly unregulated trading,” said Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven on Thursday.

He continued, “If we see foreigners as scapegoats, we will be on a slippery slope towards the destruction of the unity we have built in the trade unions and community organisations. Human rights are not just for South Africans but for all people, regardless of where they have come from. We must never forget that many of those who risked their lives in our liberation struggle and built our trade unions were migrant workers from all over the world.”

Gauteng MEC of Economic Development Lebogang Maile says the attacks are located in structural economic issues. There’s no official word from the ANC, in that moment busy crafting a press release attacking Helen Zille. Nothing from Presidency either.

17:00, Protea South: The attacks have spread. The police say the looting increased when schools closed for the day. Reports from across Soweto feature residents battling with police, who are shooting rubber bullets, under an attack of rocks and bottles. Not even Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s arrival in Meadowlands stopped the looting. Foreign-owned shops are under endemic attack across the township.

Daily Maverick reporter Bheki C. Simelane goes home to file. But a few metres away from his home, outside a store owned by a Pakistani, police say they’ve told all foreigners to leave. At the next store, around 100 people, mostly school kids, some in uniform, aged between nine and 18, are looting.

At one store, they try to break in for about 10 minutes but don’t know how. One of the older guys jumps over the iron gate and starts throwing goods to the crowd: a kilogram of mealie meal, cold drink. More people jump over and they rip off the gate. They empty the store, even take the lights, all that’s left. They’re from the area, Simelane recognises most.

Lerato Mosome, a 32 year old South African who owns Bushy Supermarket across from the one looted, owned by Pakistanis, says she wasn’t attacked because, “I’m nice to the people. When I’m asked for credit I always give it to them. I don’t sell expired stuff to the people and listen to people’s problems.” She says the Pakistanis people don’t do such.

Carrying a case of cold drink from the looted store, 21 year old Ntokozo Dlamini says, “I hate them. I hate them. I only hate them because they are treating us bad. They are increasing prices. They don’t want to take back expired stuff […] I just want them to go through the pain.” He says the store owners are racist. “The Pakistanis don’t respect us.”

18:30, Protea South: The police arrive. But the crowd has already dispersed with the loot. It’s quiet, but the looters have moved to another part of Protea South, another area of Soweto.

20:00, Moroka: Police Commissioner Mothiba again addressed media as police meet. Here is large-scale looting. We have called on additional man power. The people are not violent, all they are doing is just looting and this is not good for us as a country,” he tells Eyewitness News.

Next to the shops of the foreigners are South African shops. I’m standing in front of one shop and a market, nothing is happening to them. So we can see there is a targeted approach to loot the shops [run by] foreigners.”

Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko says he is extremely worried. Community members vow to continue, to eradicate foreigners from Soweto.

Night falls and await more reports of xenophobic looting, spreading across the country’s most famous township, hour by hour, unabated. DM

Photo: Metro police officers keep an eye on a Somali-owned shop in Meadowlands, Soweto while locals gather there during violent looting of foreign-owned shops in the area, Thursday, 22 January 2015. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA.

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