Two business owners stood outside their closed stores on Marshall Street, Jeppestown, on Tuesday and discussed the cause of the attacks. Neither wanted to be named.
“They’re hungry, the unemployment rate amongst youth is above 50%,” said one.
The other cited the cycle of attacks since widespread xenophobic violence erupted in 2008 and said this was a “revenge attack” after foreigners recently drove away the police in Hillbrow.
“If the government stops stealing and focuses on employing the youth, it may change,” said the first.
The storeowners, a foreigner and a South African, had not slept since they came to protect their stores on Sunday morning.
While the cause and motives of the violence continue to be debated, cases of looting, arson and assault spread in Johannesburg on Tuesday as SAPS and government leaders visited affected areas and called for calm.
The violence reportedly began after three people died in a fire in Jeppestown, and criminals – a number of locals blamed residents of nearby hostels in Jeppe and Denver – used the opportunity to loot stores and set fire to vehicles in Jeppe and Malvern.
Five related murders have been reported, two in Coronationville, two in Hillbrow and one near the hostel at Jeppe and 189 people have been arrested since Sunday as the violence has spread to Germiston, Thokoza, Alexandra and Tembisa.
“This country is rubbish,” said Friday Onuiogu outside his looted salon and electronics repair store in Jeppestown.
“I don’t do crime. I don’t rob anybody. I sweat for my money,” said the Nigerian who has lived in South Africa for 16 years.
“For me to start this shop, it took me years,” he continued, claiming he lost R200,000 in stock and equipment when his store was raided.
Around the corner, broken glass, clothes, cellphone parts and smashed television sets covered the floor in the Jozi Mall, an arcade with around a dozen stores. Every store in the mall was looted. The electrical wires were cut and there were two centimetres of water on the ground – the looters left the taps on.
The mosque upstairs was also targeted and a local security guard said copies of the Qur’an were torn.
Onuiogu believed the violence in Jeppe was xenophobic, but others said South Africans and their stores were also targeted. One security guard told Daily Maverick that looters spared the store where he worked because he spoke isiZulu.
“This is against foreigners but they don’t know who’s a foreigner or a citizen,” said a store owner from Benin who wanted to remain anonymous.
The store owner, who blamed the situation on youth unemployment and the government’s failure to grow the economy, said, “No one’s got a label in his store, ‘South African born’.”
David Phalela, building manager at Jeppe’s Masana House, where multiple stalls were looted, said, “They’re hungry. They’re desperate. They’re not doing this because they don’t want foreigners but because they’re desperate.”
While the attacks have been described as xenophobic, Police Minister Bheki Cele, who visited Jeppe on Tuesday, has said they were defined by criminality.
Professor Loren B Landau from the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits said violence is a part of how people settle disputes, eliminate competition and assert their morality in South Africa, and attacks on foreigners is part of the broader trend. It also pays – for looters and for politicians.
“Xenophobia is a manifestation of South Africa’s real and enduring problems: inequality, insecurity, and institutional incapacity. Perhaps more importantly, it reveals a political class willing to adopt or endorse the language and modalities of street-level gangsters. It shows that our main political parties – the ANC and the DA – are out of ideas and seeking to deflect blame rather than deliver,” said Landau.
On Tuesday in Jeppe, the police minister committed to increasing the number of officers to respond to the outbreak of attacks, but storeowners continued to ask why police intelligence failed to predict and prevent the violence and how it was allowed to continue.
“The police come for two seconds and they go. It’s like they’re also running away from the people,” said Phalela.
The storeowner from Benin claimed SAPS officers dropped his call when he tried to tell them a group was on the rampage on his street. He believed it was because he is a foreigner.
Speaking at the Jeppe Police Station, Cele said the police had intelligence on the attacks and had prevented a number of incidents. “Many things were stopped before they started,” he claimed.
Premier David Makhura said he would request the SANDF intervene if police needed support, but Cele said the army could inflame the situation.
“I’m telling you it will look like a Sunday picnic if we bring in the army,” said the minister after mentioning the five fatalities that have already occurred.
After meeting local leaders, including leaders from the Jeppe hostel, Cele addressed hundreds of hostel residents in a park surrounded by police. Some people present were armed with knobkerries and sjamboks.
Cele said he would hold a meeting on Sunday and asked the audience to stop the attacks in the interim. The frustrated crowd jeered the minister, who was speaking in isiZulu, and vowed to continue the violence.
Cele later told media that community leaders expressed frustration with foreigners in South Africa but had targeted both locals and foreigners.
On Monday, Lihle Tshabalala, a 33-year-old South African citizen who has been staying in Jeppe for years, told Daily Maverick her premises was ransacked by a mob. She said she was also threatened with rape in front of her two boys, aged seven and 11.
Tshabalala, who owns a dry-cleaning business, lost two washing machines, the family television and other household items.
“They said I must open and have sex with them or they would burn down the whole place, but I refused. I told them they rather burn the place down than have my children see such nonsense, which they might never recover from,” she said.
In a video posted on Twitter, President Cyril Ramaphosa on Tuesday condemned the attacks.
“We need to act in a way we give respect to people from other countries, and we need to deal with our own problems and discuss issues. We cannot accept that South Africans don’t welcome other people from other countries,” he said.
Civil society group Right2Know on Tuesday noted recent attacks on foreigners, in Tshwane and Durban, and blamed populist politicians for fuelling the flames.
“The recent xenophobic attacks on non-South Africans can be directly linked to calls by politicians to ‘defend the sovereignty of the state’ and confirms a dangerous emerging trend of xenophobic populism which leads to attacks on foreign nationals,” said the group in a statement.
Professor Landau said such attacks are a threat to security, prosperity and the rule of law, which leads to distrust in local institutions and distrust and hostility from countries across Africa.
“This hurts us all as we seek to collectively address the real challenges of inequality, racism, poverty, and insecurity. That neighbouring countries are increasingly hostile to doing business with South Africa further exacerbates the negative economic and moral consequences,” said Landau.
Asked whether he thinks the attacks will continue, the storeowner from Benin said, “We will wait for them.”
The police continued to face off with people who claimed they were targeting foreign-owned stores on Tuesday evening. DM
Additional reporting by Aisha Abdool Karim, Lelethu Tonisi and Ayanda Mthethwa.
"We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings." ~ Ursula Le Guin