South Africa


Xenophobia: One night in Snake Park

Xenophobia: One night in Snake Park

Exploring South Africa’s xenophobic demons through the death of 14-year-old Siphiwe Mahori.


Listen to One Night in Snake Park – Episode 1

Xenophobic attacks in South Africa have been on a slow boil for years.

Recently, striking truck drivers lashed out at migrants, and foreigners were chased from their homes in Thokoza, in the south of Johannesburg. A report was released on a popular Twitter account dedicated to the Afrophobic hashtag campaign, #PutSouthAfricansFirst. And on August 23, the front-page headline in the Sunday Independent declared “SA under foreign control”, blaming the bleak pandemic job market on migrants taking work from South Africans.

The question is not if the country will explode again, but when.

In another lifetime, before the pandemic, we went back to the beginning of what would become a year of violent attacks against foreigners. We thought if we could understand what went wrong, we could understand why these ongoing attacks have become part of the South African landscape.

We started outside a spaza shop in Snake Park, on the edge of Soweto. 

Sometime in the afternoon on the 19th of January 2015, an argument which began at the Waka Waka shop spiralled out of control. Before the end of the day, foreign-owned spaza shops were being attacked and looted across Soweto. And, amid all this, a 14-year-old boy named Siphiwe Mahori was shot and killed. 

Over the next few days, media reports tallied more than 150 arrests and, by the end of the initial wave of what would become a year of xenophobic-fuelled unrest, at least six more people were killed, including two foreign shopkeepers, and a 13-month-old baby who was trampled to death during a looting incident in nearby Kagiso.

A year later, we visited the scene. We found Nombuyiselo Mntlane outside her small, cinder block house, not far from the shop where the unrest started. She was washing a carpet.

Nombuyiselo Mntlane, with an initiation photo of her son Siphiwe Mahori, in her home in Snake Park. Photo: Oupa Nkosi

At the time, we were working on a book, a series of oral histories around the topic of migrancy and xenophobia in South Africa. We wanted to take down Nombuyiselo’s story. The same one she had told the media at the time; that her boy, Siphiwe, was an innocent bystander, not part of a criminal mob. 

But she couldn’t tell us what had happened to the man arrested for shooting Siphiwe. All she could say for sure was that she knew the shooter paid R2,000 bail and got out weeks after his initial arrest. At least that’s what they said on TV. Nombuyiselo and Siphiwe’s father, Dan Mahori, weren’t at the sentencing the following September. In fact, they didn’t know it even happened.

It was easy to understand the couple’s anger and their suspicions about what might have gone wrong. How could they not know the fate of the man who had shot their child? Why weren’t they in the courtroom when he was sentenced? And, after all the media attention about Siphiwe’s death, how did the case just disappear?

Five years later, everyone in the country seems to remember the shooting death of a 14-year-old boy by a foreign shopkeeper in Soweto. But getting people to talk about it would prove much more difficult.

What was it that nobody wanted to say? What was it that everyone had to lose? DM

Find out more on the podcast, One Night in Snake Park – a collaboration with Sound Africa – via Podlink or wherever you download your podcasts or visit Sound Africa website.

Listen to One Night in Snake Park – Episode 1

Rasmus Bitsch is the co-founder of Sound Africa.

Eliot Moleba is a playwright pursing his PhD in Theatre Directing at The Oslo National Academy of the Arts.

Tanya Pampalone is the managing editor of the Global Investigative Journalism Network.

They collaborated on the reporting, writing, editing, and production of One Night in Snake Park, a project with Sound Africa and supported by the Taco Kuiper Investigative Journalism Grant. 



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