On Friday morning, as the nation’s media and politicians descended upon the Moroka Police Station in Soweto, a debate broke out about the causes of last week’s violence in that area. Several high-profile politicians, including the Gauteng Community Safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane proclaimed, from on high perhaps, that it was not “xenophobic”. Academic researchers, the Somalian Embassy and others immediately disagreed with her, claiming that the people who had been attacked – or the owners of looted shops – were all foreign. It appears there is some distance between “rampant criminality” and “xenophobia”. On the ground in the middle stand our police. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
It goes without saying that the nightmare spectre hanging over the events of the last few days is the death of 62 people seven years ago: 62 people who had one thing in common, namely the fact that they were foreign. In the dramatic, nightmare year that was 2008 (load-shedding, xenophobia, the Mbeki recall, the end of the growing economy…) this was perhaps the most frightening of incidents. People were dying, the police had lost control, and nobody knew what was going to happen. Recall the context: the ANC of Thabo Mbeki was a thing of the past, and eventually Jacob Zuma himself, with his new leadership, took to the town halls and community centres, while Mbeki gave a televised address that simply underlined that he was out of touch.
Things have changed since then, to say the least. While in 2015 a public reaction may have taken three days, when it did come from government and the ANC, it was pretty impressive. Firstly, the police seemed to be able to intervene more quickly: they descended upon Soweto in numbers. While it seemed impossible to predict where the next incident of violence would be, organisations monitoring the violence were satisfied that this time, the police were on the case. Then the politicians moved in, press conference followed press conference, Gauteng Premier David Makhura, Joburg Mayor Parks Tau, the Gauteng ANC, all spent their Friday on the airwaves in some form or another.
While their response was probably co-ordinated, it seemed to have been effective. Politicians in parts of Soweto draw crowds. When they speak, people gathered to listen; the anger can be drawn from the situation. Crucially, they appear also to be listening to their communities, and that makes a difference.
However, the repeated refrain from various quarters that this is not “xenophobia” is directly contradicted by the very actions of the police. Because on Friday morning officers confirmed that they had moved foreign shop owners operating in Soweto to a different location. That they would “not disclose”. Surely, surely, the only reason for that is that they were afraid of providing some sort of focal point for these attacks. In this case, the actions of basically hiding foreign nationals must surely speak louder than the words proclaiming “this is not xenophobia”.
That said, the actions of some police officers also lend credibility to the claim that this is “rampant criminality”. On Sunday the City Press splashed with its report that “Cops told us to loot”. Considering that for years immigrants have been known in police slang as “ATMs” because of how easy it’s been for officers to extract cash from them, this comes as no surprise. It shows, once again, how little regard there is for for the law, and human rights, within some ranks of our police.
It is also wrong to assume that the words and actions of a provincial community safety MEC really set the tone. Under our system, provincials MECs don’t have much power over the police. They are controlled by national government, and have their own structure. So Nkosi-Malobane can really only watch and comment in public, and not much else.
She and others who claim that this is not xenophobia could be accused of denialism, of refusing to believe that our people could be xenophobic. After all, to accept that this is xenophobic could easily feed into other claims about which groups in our society are racist and which are not. It could even be claimed that it’s simply a bid to show that this situation isn’t being taken seriously. Which would then lead to questions about why she and her other political colleagues weren’t all in Soweto on Friday.
That said, she could possibly argue, in a less than public setting, that what she is really doing is trying to stop other people from joining these protests. That if you claim in public that they are “rampant criminality” you make the violence less attractive than if you label them “xenophobic attacks”. In other words, she may be trying to lessen the hype surrounding the attacks. Perhaps.
There is another very important aspect to this. As always, while we could decry social attitudes and other dynamics, it’s the economics of the situation that are probably dictating these events. It appears widely accepted that many of the spaza shops run in Soweto are run by people from Somalia or other parts of the world, but not often by South Africans. (You would expect that people who live in the area, who are from an area, would run the most successful shops there.)
On Friday Small Business Development Minister Lindiwe Zulu gave perhaps the most cogent explanation thus far for why this is. She points out that during Apartheid, black South Africans were deliberately cut off from creating capital. As a result, now, they don’t have the resources to start a shop, to buy the first batch of stock, etc. She says also that when Somalian people, and those from other countries start these shops, they often have the experience (and have even grown up in the trade, so to speak) to make them work. Some people have claimed that they are even able to group together to undercut South Africans. That may be true; certainly in business, experience matters. And around the world, immigrants have a tendency to do well, once they’ve set themselves up. They also create their own networks, that provide credit, support and advice when necessary. As she puts it, “They buy in bulk, they protect each other. Something I believe South Africans could do as well.”
That may explain the economic dynamic here. If you are still living as you were under Apartheid, and you see people coming in and managing to accumulate capital, and live a better life than you, it is completely rational to feel that something unfair is happening. Especially if you feel that they are making a profit at your expense. Leave that dynamic alone to simmer for a few years, add a couple of incidents, and you have your tinderbox.
However, that still doesn’t explain, at this point, why this has happened in Soweto. During 2008 xenophobic attacks. Soweto was largely quiet. That xenophobic violence started in Alexandra. The then brand-new Member of Parliament for the ANC, Kgalema Motlanthe (a month later, he was president) explained that this was because of the particular economics of Alexandra. It appeared that this didn’t spread to Soweto because it has actually improved dramatically in the last decade, while Alexandra hasn’t (even the view from its main road has deteriorated: it now features the Michelangelo).
But the reality of 2015 is that the conditions for violent xenophobic/criminal attacks are widespread, present in just about every township in South Africa. Terrible hardship afflicts way too many people in this country – it is difficult to feel good about life and future prospects when, every day, some of the most basic questions of survival need to be answered. From disillusionment and hopelessness to violence, any violence, it is only a short distance indeed.
In a strange twist, the fact that this year’s massive violence flared up in Soweto has probably helped with such a rapid deployment of police and politicians; there must be well-founded fears that a Soweto-based outbreak of violence would easily surpass the 2008 unrest.
The good news is that for the moment, it appears everyone seems to be taking this seriously. The police are active, the politicians are not sitting idly. If nothing else, the 2016 municipal elections are way too near.
The bad news is, none of the underlying dynamics are easy to change. In the country awaiting the first load shedding, it is hard to believe that such ugliness won’t happen again, and soon. DM
Photo: An Ethiopian man waits next to his stock for transport at the Moroka Police Station in Soweto on Friday, 23 January 2015. Picture: Werner Beukes/SAPA