South Africa

In limbo: Foreigners seek cover after fleeing Soweto

By BC Simelane & Greg Nicolson 26 January 2015

Calm was restored to areas looted last week in attacks on foreign-owned stores in Soweto. While the state has warned against more attacks, GREG NICOLSON & BHEKI C. SIMELANE spoke to some of those affected, who fled with only the clothes on their backs and money in their pocket.

“We lost everything,” says Muhammed Khorshid Alom, from Bangladesh, at the Friendship Supermarket near Wanderers taxi rank in Johannesburg.

On Friday at 20:00, the 31-year-old’s CTM Store in Naledi, Soweto, was broken into and looted of what he estimates was R80-90,000 in stock. Alom points at his jeans and t-shirt, the only possessions he was able to take with him when he fled. He was able to escape and got a lift from locals who dropped him at the Jabulani Mall. From there, he caught a taxi to town, where he has been staying since, sleeping at a different person’s home every night.

Alom hasn’t been back to see his store, but knows everything will be gone by now: his clothes, blankets, stock, everything. “They’ll shoot us, that’s why we didn’t go [back],” he says.

Since a foreign store owner killed 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori a week ago during the looting of foreign-owned spaza shops in Snake Park, targeted looting spread across the township and reached as far as Ramaphosa in the East Rand and Rietvallei in the West Rand. Another two people have died in the chaos, including a 13-month-old baby. The situation calmed over the weekend and the number of suspects arrested has risen to 178, including six juveniles.

But with around 120 stores looted, foreign nationals who fled the townships are in limbo. Alom is joined by other men, also from Bangladesh, who owned stores in Soweto. Inside the fully-stocked Friendship Supermarket, they all start talking at once with stories of desperation. They’re angry that all foreigners are being treated as one, even if they did nothing wrong.

“This is my last clothes,” says 25-year-old Redwan Haque, who runs Bismillah Supermarket in Protea Glen. “We escaped with our lives […] We didn’t have any choice.” He takes a few coins and two R10 notes from his pocket. “This is the last I have.” Haque’s store was attacked last Wednesday. He ran through the back door without enough time to take anything with him. Everything was stolen, he says, including the fridges and the personal stove he used for cooking.

“We don’t know where we’re going to live,” he continues.

“Every day the place [we sleep] changes,” says Alom.

Oli Asfer, whose BM Cash and Stock is in Green Village, Soweto, says the store owners set up their shops with money borrowed from home. He borrowed some money recently and asks how he’ll now cover the almost R100,000 in goods he lost.

“Everyone just wants to open their shops again,” he says.

The looting of foreign-owned stores has opened wounds of xenophobia in South Africa. The violence has reignited discussions of how locals and foreigners interact and the socio-economic causes that might be a catalyst for such attacks.

Asfer says he used to help his customers. He says the local spazas helped people who couldn’t afford to travel regularly to the larger supermarkets, and if a customer was desperate he would give them credit. “Now, no one is helping me.”

Government leaders condemned the looting over the weekend. “When you come to South Africa you want to live in Soweto. We want you to feel free there. We don’t want places that are designated for certain nationalities. When you are here in South Africa you must live with us where we live,” Premier David Makhura told victims of the attacks who had fled to Mayfair, according to Eyewitness News. Speaking in Soweto on Friday, the premier is also reported to have admonished parents for allowing children to loot, and said being foreign should not be a crime.

A press release on Friday said Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa, who was acting president while Jacob Zuma was at the World Economic Forum in Davos, was keeping Zuma up to date on the matter. Zuma had instructed Cabinet’s Security Cluster to work with local and provincial government to “bring the situation under control and work towards restoring normalcy”.

According to SAPA on Sunday, Deputy Minister in the Presidency Buti Manamela condemned the attacks. “We should stand up and say, ‘Not in our name’. You are not doing this in our name and we are not going to allow it. There is a strong sense of entitlement and shifting the blame instead of taking responsibility,” he reportedly told the Rhema Church in Protea North, Soweto.

Manamela then warned locals of the risk of allowing attacks to continue, claiming that once the foreign stores are all looted, people will emphasise South African division: “They will look next door and say, ‘You are Venda, therefore you must go to Venda,’ or, ‘You are a Xhosa, you must go to Pondoland.’”

The Friendship Supermarket is now full of those who fled Soweto and want to share their stories. Ahmed Fayz, whose Sumon Tuckshop is in Emdeni, also lost everything. “I’m currently out of business. I’m just stranded, as you can see. I’m standing around. I’m not sure if I’ll go back there […] There is a possibility that I’ll return to Soweto. We will wait to hear from the authorities to hear if it’s safe to return.”

When Fayz escaped his store, he says he was saved by the police. Others, however, have different accounts. Sunday’s City Press features accounts from multiple witnesses who saw police taking part in the looting, demanding money for protection and making xenophobic comments. In response, the SAPS noted one case of police looting they knew of, but dismissed the rest of the report as “wild allegations”.

While the state tries to maintain the calm that prevailed over the weekend, those who fled the attacks remain in limbo. In the short term, those gathered in the Friendship Supermarket are looking for help to survive. But they’re also waiting for the state to say they can go back to their stores. Some are even hopeful that the government might cover some of the thousands of what they lost. DM

Photo: Locals look on as young women run with items from a shop believed to be owned by a foreigner, in Soweto January 22, 2015. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

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