In the month since of a spate of violence aimed at foreign shopkeepers ripped through Gauteng, South Africans have, once again, been asking whether so-called “xenophobic violence” is on the verge of exploding. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) certainly thinks so, warning of “numerous and ongoing attacks on refugees and foreign nationals.” RICHARD POPLAK visited Protea South to see how one Soweto location is dealing with a problem that refuses easy definitions.
During the hour of day that roughly coincides with lunch, I find Protea South ward councillor Mapule Khumalo sprawled out on her couch watching television. She is an enormous, attractive woman, her hair glinting candy red in the light flooding through her living room window. Her dominion encompasses the community of Protea South, a network of shacks and brick homes on the Rustenberg side of Soweto, all nestling up against the furiously busy Protea Gardens Mall. Within the warren of unpaved, sewerage-soaked streets, a second South African economy runs parallel to the one Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene articulated during last week’s budget speech. In Protea South and communities like it, formal smacks into informal, rural smashes into urban, and foreign squares off against local in concussive blasts that seldom, if ever, abate.
It is thus unsurprising that Councillor Khumalo carries about her the deftness of someone who governs a crossroads. She tells me that she arrived in Protea South back in 1982, and was at war with the regime long before she was out of her school girl’s uniform. An ANC member since ’88, and a stalwart of numberless NGOs and organisations, in 2003 she decided to run for the ward. She was successfully elected in 2006, and again in 2011.
It has not been an easy run.
“When you become a councillor,” she explains, “people want service delivery this week. They don’t understand that there is a process—it takes time for budgets to be approved, and they think that whatever you do, it’s with their money. Buy a new car or a new couch, and it’s their money. They think tender money goes straight to the councillor. They need civic education.”
In fairness to the people of Protea South, nothing much seems to have happened on the service delivery side of things since the Paleolithic age. But in fairness to Khumalo, Protea South keeps splitting its sides, spilling over its boundaries, growing. There is certainly evidence of electricity being wired in: I saw new transformer boxes fixed to poles, and actually got stuck behind an Eskom truck as I wound my way through the streets—the uncontestable pleasures of load-shedding are soon to reach Khumalo’s constituents. Tar roads, she assures me, are but a month away, but in South Africa’s townships, tar roads are always a month away. Don’t be fooled: Protea South doesn’t function outside the 21st century—it is the 21st century. This is how several billion people live, in the unmapped zones between the future and the past, where the present is a garbled GPS way point that does not compute.
Here, there exists an overarching set of laws (see: the Constitution) that don’t always apply, that don’t apply to everyone equally, and whose application is subject to local mores rather than some distant framework applied from afar. The SAPS still carries the stench of Apartheid atrocities, and where that stench has dissipated, other noisome attributes have crept in. This community, like so many across this country, barely consents to being policed. If, as the sociologist Max Weber once contended, the state is any “human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”, then there are areas in South Africa that do not properly coalesce to a state, but to something else that has yet to be named.
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Scroll through a calendar of South Africa’s recent ignominies, and one learns that Mapule Khumalo was ward councillor during the tsunami of so-called “xenophobic attacks” that subsumed the country over the course 2008. Much has been said, written and Carte Blanched about that unpleasant time, but we should note here that the trouble visited upon foreigners was not visited upon them everywhere. According to Khumalo, Protea South saw no trouble. “When it began in Alexandra,” she says, “we called public meetings [to stave off the violence]. There are plus minus 70 foreigners here. None of them were hurt.”
That was then. When all hell broke loose earlier this year in Snake Park, Soweto, Protea South was hit—and hard. “Our youngsters, they see things happening on TV, and it’s like they’re hypnotised,” Khumalo tells me. “They started doing the same things.”
In other words, these were copycat attacks that had no real basis in the everyday realities of life in Protea South. An explanation, it must be said, that is hard to buy, mostly because Khumalo makes it an increasingly hard sell.
“We have many Pakistani here,” she tells me. “The competition is too hot.”
And so the shops of Pakistani business folk were looted, firebombed, vandalised. But zoom in, and we learn that these aren’t Pakistanis, or aren’t all Pakistanis. There are Somalis, Bangladeshis—“I don’t know how to differentiate them. We just refer to them as Pakistani,” she says.
Strip a person of their particulars, I’m thinking, and they become meat.
Khumalo explains that a local, ad hoc business council comprised of four or five (the details are always fuzzy) “local” spaza shop owners banded together to do something about the foreign business problem in the location. “Their complaint,” says Khumalo, “is that they say we don’t need more of them.” As far as the councillor is concerned, this cannot properly be considered xenophobic attacks—insofar as the term means anything in South Africa—because Malawians and Zimbabweans were not targeted.
“It was criminal activities,” she says.
“You mean a form of robbery?” I ask.
“Exactly,” Khumalo confirms. “These foreigners were not doing anything wrong. And they were not attacking them physically. They were just stealing.”
So what can be done to forestall further attacks? And what does the councillor make of accusations that the government is tacitly complicit in these attacks?
“If the ANC did not care,” she says, her voice rising, “then they would not tell every ANC councillor across the country to call meetings. If you always call meetings, four times a month, then they will understand. But if you don’t teach them, then they will forget.”
Fighting violence with PowerPoint didn’t work for the Americans in Afghanistan. I’m not sure how well it’s working here. Nonetheless, according to Khumalo, meetings are the stopgap between Protea South’s foreign shopkeepers, and those that would see them packing for Pakistan.
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The story is an old one: humans on the hop encroach on territory inhabited by humans who describe their surroundings as home. So it is in Protea South, where the ad hoc business council, led in part by Africa Mkhari and his brother Noel, have a very simple set of demands:
I am standing with a colleague outside their Africa Tuck Shop, while both Mkharis explain their grievances. The problem, they say, is the unchecked expansion of foreign tuck shops in the location.
“They don’t respect us blacks,” says Africa. “We are just a spade, to be used to dig.” The foreign shop owners do not discuss setting prices—they can tolerate zero margins in order to drive local shop owners out of business. “They won’t open next to their brothers. But they will open across from us. They just put their containers and try to kill us.”
So what is the business council doing to combat this?
According to Africa Mkhari, “everyone is watching them, from zone 1 to zone 7. They tell us, ‘a container is coming.’ We report to the town manager, who tells the councillor.”
Photo: Africa Mkhari and his brother Noel (Richard Poplak)
But if the shop owners have a business license, and have secured an operating lease from a local hoping to make some extra dough off their property, then the means of getting rid of the aspirant spaza shop owners becomes extra-legal, does it not?
“No violence,” insists Africa. “That’s why we include the councillor. Otherwise we will end up in jail.”
But ain’t this simply capitalism in all its raw, unvarnished glory? If you hope to be a businessman, then surely there is always the possibility of encountering better businessmen?
“Competition is good,” insists Noel. “It makes you work better. But these Pakistanis will work even a whole year with no profit to steal your customers. It is unfair competition.”
“The old Pakistanis that are here,” says Africa, “they can stay. The new ones? No more. We are done.”
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Which is all a long way of saying that very few of the structural problems that fueled the 2008 attacks have been addressed, and therefore more violence remains a real possibility. Protea South is neither city nor village, but some other amalgam—a repository for globalisation’s infinite flotsam arriving in containers delivered by “Pakistanis”. The problem, as ever, is one of governance. The disconnect between government, police and community is as significant as it’s ever been. Part of the problem is that wards are the key to the ANC’s patronage network. Part of the problem is that the expectations that the government long ago set have not, cannot be met. In a country that remains “open for business”, bare-knuckle capitalism is the only ideology that counts. The “Pakistanis” represent to the ad hoc Protea South business council all the bitter truths about life on earth in 2015.
Meanwhile, new problems arrive by the day.
For instance, when I ask Khumalo about the levels of crime in the community, she tells me that it is mostly under control. “The only thing is the MaRussians,” she says.
The MaRussians, according to the councillor, are men from Lesotho, draped in thick blankets, who stalk the location at night.
And what do the MaRussians want?
“They don’t want anything. They take nothing. They just beat you up and leave you.”
In Protea South, “foreigner” is just another word for “fear”. Men from afar with no faces, bringing chaos into a community so tenuous that it is always on the edge of chaos. DM