Xenophobia Aftermath

Vulnerable and traumatised — but fearful Jeppestown business owners rebuild

By Bheki C. Simelane 23 October 2019

Marshall Street in Jeppestown, Joburg remains quiet as many foreign-owned businesses did not reopen after the September violence and looting. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

Some foreign business owners whose premises were looted in the violence that erupted in Jeppestown and surrounds in September are trying to rebuild, but say they are scared because they are still vulnerable.

An uneasy calm envelops Marshall Street in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. It’s been nearly a month since marauding mobs brandishing sticks and rocks attacked foreign-owned businesses in the area. Reminders of the attacks are ever-present – mangled metal shutters, broken windows and shattered glass litter the area. Where once thriving businesses operated, abandoned shells remain.

Marshall Street is one of the streets in Jeppestown along which almost every business was affected in the violence meted out on foreigners by South Africans who claim immigrants are responsible for their unemployment and crime in the country.

An abandoned business on Marshal Street in Jeppestown. (Photo: Bheki Simelane)

On Wednesday 23 October, Daily Maverick counted at least nine businesses that remained closed on the once bustling street.

Businesses owners who have returned have done so because packing up and leaving is not an option, with children being in school given as one of the reasons.

It’s been quiet, but you know the story. You are not on the safe side. Any time they can come; you have no guarantee. I’m very scared, but what can I do? I need to survive,” said 27-year-old Zerihun Petros from Ethiopia.

Petros arrived in the country just over three years ago with high hopes, buoyed by the success of his fellow countrymen in South Africa. However, Petros said he has not had a pleasant time here, stating that he had experienced xenophobic violence almost every year. He said Jeppe has been quiet of late but this was no cause for celebration as foreign businesses remain vulnerable.

Petros said he did not believe President Cyril Ramaphosa’s diplomatic mission, including apologising to affected nations, would make any difference:

It will not change much because many of us remain vulnerable. The next time we might hear such from the president is after our businesses have been looted again.”

A few streets away, on Madison Street, six foreign nationals were having an animated discussion on the topic: “What would they do if they were attacked again?”

Nothing,” said 31-year-old grocer Hasan Mohamed from Bangladesh.

Half my business had already been looted even before I could wrap my mind around what was happening. Unfortunately, I did not see much as I ended up at the Johannesburg Hospital in Hillbrow.”

During the September violence, a mob descended on Mohamed’s store, looted it and then assaulted him. Because it was such a huge crowd, he does not know who hit him or what they hit him with. Despite this, he has reopened his business, but things are not the same.

Mohamed said the closing down of other businesses had slowed down operational businesses because few people were coming to the area.

Everything is better now, but you don’t know when they might start again. It’s sudden. When they came, we were not prepared to move our stock elsewhere safe. We knew they were going to march on the Monday, but they got violent and started looting on the Sunday,” Mohamed said.

On Ramaphosa’s efforts to mend diplomatic relations with affected nations, Mohamed said this could be good for diplomatic relations but foreign business owners were still vulnerable.

The Zulu king was supposed to come and talk to them [Jeppe Hostel dwellers who are alleged to be behind the attacks], but it never happened. Now, our only hope is that it will not happen again, but you know the story as well as I do,” he added.

Luke Joseph, a 30-year-old Malawian national, reopened his sewing business after it was looted in September and six of his big sewing machines were stolen. Joseph said it was very hard to reopen. He now only has three small sewing machines, and, like Mohamed, said he is scared but hopes there will be no more attacks.

I’m very scared. I’m still traumatised by what happened. Everyone who saw what was happening here would be very scared but there is nothing I can do. If they come, they come,” Joseph said.

Some of those who have decided to stay and reopen say they have done so because they had “too much going on” to simply pick up and leave. They, however, had a warning for the perpetrators of the violence:

We will fight back. Like us, they are made of flesh and blood,” said a business owner, who did not want to be identified.

Even the people we employ in our businesses are scared. This slows down our businesses because our employees are not free to interact with customers the way they used to because of the tensions between us,” said business owner Stella Winful.

Winful and her husband, both from Nigeria, decided they would reopen after their business was cleaned out by the rampant crowd of allegedly mostly Zulu men from the nearby Jeppestown hostel.

We are hoping it’s over now. We keep telling ourselves it’s over, but again, if not, what can we do?” asked Winful.

Several of the foreign business owners who spoke to Daily Maverick on Wednesday said they believed the arrival of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini would calm the rampant multitudes, most of whom are allegedly residents in Johannesburg’s three main hostels, Jeppestown, Denver, and George Goch.

Nene Onyialo from Nigeria, who owns a big spares shop in Jeppestown, said people are still afraid to come and support businesses in the area. She spoke of her fear during the attacks:

I was too terrified, scared is an understatement. The first thing that came to my mind was whether we were in Syria, it resembled a war zone.”

Meanwhile, fresh messages are being circulated on social media calling for a shutdown of SA to protest against foreign nationals. The source of the messages is unknown. DM

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