Unconfirmed rumours of imminent, large-scale and coordinated attacks on foreign nationals in Durban’s central business district have added to the fear and confusion that has gripped traders since the most recent flare-up of xenophobic violence that began in November 2020.
But provincial police have told Daily Maverick that they have no knowledge of threats of such attacks.
“We are not aware of any pending coordinated attacks that are planned. The situation is quiet and police are maintaining a high visibility whilst ensuring that law enforcement is taking place,” said Brigadier Jay Naicker.
This, however, is cold comfort for the hundreds of traders that are no longer able to earn a living because of intimidation or the very real fear of violence.
There have been several sporadic attacks on foreign vendors and their tented stalls since November, when scores were expelled from the popular Church Walk fleamarket, next to The Workshop shopping centre, by a group calling themselves the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association Freedom Fighters, which has as its eThekwini “coordinator” Zibuse Cele.
Cele’s legitimacy as a KZN MKMVA coordinator appears to have been the product of the endless factional battles within the African National Congress, but more about that later.
The most recent attacks on Monday in the city’s bustling Victoria Street resulted in the torching of three vending tables and one gazebo, the vandalising of one brick and mortar shop and two foreign nationals being so seriously injured that they had to be taken to hospital.
This has again thrust the safety of foreign nationals into the spotlight in a province that has a history of deadly xenophobic flare-ups. But authorities are hesitant to name the incidents as such, rather intimating acts of criminality or infighting between competing vendors in a desperate economic climate.
Monday’s attacks were allegedly perpetrated by a band of about eight to 10 “MK youths”, and resulted in hundreds of terrified foreign traders retreating to the Diakonia Centre, about 1.5km away. The renowned centre is a common meeting ground for those seeking human rights protection and houses the Refugee Social Services NPO.
Umba, a slightly built Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) national who has been in South Africa since 2005 as an asylum seeker, met Daily Maverick at Diakonia on Wednesday, with Nigerian-born Smith Enabebholo, a naturalised citizen who is married to a South African. Enabebholo has been vocal about attacks on foreigners, and is known within the community and media circles.
Daily Maverick has chosen not to reveal Umba’s full name, for her safety.
Enabebholo is the manager of the Church Street market, where dozens of foreign nationals plied their trade before being expelled in November by mostly Cele’s MKMVA to make way for local traders who were told to sell only traditional goods.
Umba worked with street children in the DRC and has built up good relationships with some of the local equivalent, called oskoteni on the streets, where she acts as a mentor. She is studying social work through UNISA.
Along with the oskoteni are the amaparas, or parasites, the street children and young adults who are addicted to drugs such as Whoonga and Nyaope.
Daily Maverick understands that it is these young people who often alert the foreigners to possible attacks, but are also alleged to be perpetrating some of the attacks or pointing out foreign nationals to attackers.
Enabebholo told Daily Maverick that in efforts to stem the attacks, a group of foreign national representatives had, since November, met the premier, city representatives, provincial police and alleged MKMVA members represented by a man whose name he could not remember, but who was a “taxi owner”.
Nothing fruitful had come of these meetings, he said, with Monday’s attacks highlighting the assertion.
“What the [MKMVA representative] made us understand at that meeting is that they had a different picture of what was happening at the Workshop [flea market]. They thought foreigners were occupying flea market spaces without lease agreements,” he said.
The foreign nationals at the meeting “showed the [MK man] that we were legally in South Africa”, said Enabebholo, and also “showed him that we have lease agreements to trade at the market, and that we employ a lot of South Africans”.
“They had a very different picture of what was happening, and said that because the issue was now resolved, we can return to the flea market.”
But the attacks resumed when they returned.
Enabebholo said it was apparent that there were “factions” within the MKMVA that were happy for them to return to the market and to continue trading elsewhere in the city, and other “factions” — coordinated by Cele — that were opposed to any accommodation with the foreign nationals.
He said the foreign nationals reached out to Cele and met him last month outside Addington Hospital, on Durban’s beachfront, where Cele works.
“We explained to him our plight and said we were ready to work with the locals. Many of us are battling financially because we can’t work. We can’t pay our rent, and neither can the locals who work for us, so everybody is losing.”
Cele had promised to call a meeting with the foreign nationals and “locals” said Enabebholo, “but up until today, we are still waiting for that meeting. Now the whole situation has started up again,” he said, referring to Monday’s attacks.
“Now it has spread all over the streets,” added Umba.
She said one of the oskoteni had warned her to “be careful” of Cele’s MK faction, as they were planning to expel foreign nationals from their rented shops in Durban, not just from the markets or street stalls.
Enabebholo said he had heard the same thing from what he assured Daily Maverick was a reliable source.
Rumours such as these heighten fear among the tormented foreign nationals and also cause consternation and frustration for police and other authorities. But given the province’s history of xenophobic violence, it would be wise to investigate.
Last week, KwaZulu-Natal police and the province’s community safety MEC had to come out strongly to refute rumours — presented as fact — that two foreign nationals had been killed by MK veterans during a xenophobic flare-up at a market in the city, also situated relatively close to The Workshop. While there was violence, there were no deaths.
The killings were said to have taken place on Sunday, 28 February, according to a statement from Daniel Byamungu Dunia, the executive director of the Africa Solidarity Network, which is based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College Campus.
Born in the DRC, Dunia has been a champion for refugees and foreign nationals, and of documenting violent acts against them, so authorities refuting his statement came as something of a shock to many.
Daily Maverick asked Dunia to supply the names and identification of the men who were allegedly killed, but instead he directed us to some of those who had undergone the 28 February attack.
Four days after Dunia had issued his statement about the killings, he texted Daily Maverick to say that he had been “receiving too much intimidation” and was “afraid”. “I am receiving calls giving warnings,” he said.
He has not responded to text messages or calls since and Daily Maverick has been told that he is “in hiding”.
Daily Maverick asked Enabebholo about the statement on the two people dying. He said the deaths were “allegations”, but Dunia’s statement did not mention them this way.
This is a blow to the credibility of the organisation that Dunia represents, and will no doubt be used by opportunists to attack legitimate claims made by him and foreign nationals in the future.
“I was also trying to do my own investigation to see if two people really died, but that was the story we heard,” said Enabebholo. “We heard that a Malawian and a Zimbabwean died, I took it from what [I believed was a credible source].”
Umba said the confusion with one of the “deaths” might have come about during the chaos of the February attack.
She told Daily Maverick that there were locals and foreign nationals fleeing the attackers, some trying to grab their wares while being beaten or threatened with bush knives.
“One man [passed out] and was lying there [and people took this for him being dead],” she said. “Everyone was then saying ‘he died, he died’.”
Umba and Enabebholo also said that unlike previous attacks, where Cele and his cohorts had made it clear they would be driving foreign nationals out, they could not state with certainty that the February attackers or Monday’s attackers were MKMVA or MKMVA Freedom Fighters.
Daily Maverick also met Cele on Wednesday. His tone was remarkably more subdued than in previous conversations with this journalist, where he had once chuckled about “chasing” a foreign national from the Church Walk market.
He categorically denied that the MKMVA or MKMVA Freedom Fighters were involved in Monday’s attacks, saying it was probably the work of the “amaparas”.
Asked about the meeting that he had told Enabebholo he would organise, Cele said: “They came here and we said we need to sit down, and maybe the problem would be solved. But now they [have not got in touch with me again].”
It appears then, that the foreign nationals and Cele and his “freedom fighters” are expecting each other to make contact again, and there things have stalled.
From here, Cele immediately lurched into his usual rhetoric, saying that the foreign nationals in the area were not in the country legitimately and that others had forged the permits allowing them to trade in Durban.
“Some of them are committing crimes, some of them are doing drugs, and they are doing things that are not good at all.”
He said the traders were still “not allowed” at the Church Walk fleamarket.
“Maybe after we sit with our leaders, maybe we will discuss [that]. But our leaders are running away from this, they don’t want to discuss it with us.”
He then said it was “okay” for foreign nationals with legitimate permits to trade in the city, “but not those with forged permits”, adding that it was up to the city and other authorities to check permits before allowing trading. This was done on Friday, as part of ongoing operations, where some locals and foreigners were found to be trading without permits.
“Maybe they should start afresh to do new permits for everyone who wants to sell,” said Cele. “Our people must have the right to sell so that they can live better.”
The official chairman of the MKMVA in KwaZulu-Natal is Themba Mavundla, who is still in his leadership role because the association has not yet held its overdue elective conference. This has exacerbated factions and challenges for the position.
Cele said the MKMVA Freedom Fighters had “not sat down with Mr Mavundla because we had a meeting with the [ANC] Secretary-General Ace Magashule and [MKMVA national leader] Kebby Maphatsoe, where we were told the MKMVA KZN structure doesn’t exist — it is only Mavundla and maybe two or three others. We are waiting for them to be removed, but Covid-19 has been stopping this from taking place.”
That meeting took place in October 2020, a month before the attacks on foreign nationals reignited. The “freedom fighters” faction was looking for the provincial MKMVA leadership to be disbanded because their time in office had lapsed. They are looking for provincial leaders who prioritise veterans and locals for scarce work opportunities.
Asked about how the factions appeared to have differing views on the treatment of foreign nationals, Cele said: “It looks like factions, but it’s not like that. We are fighting for all South Africans. We are not discriminating.”
He said the MKMVA Freedom Fighters would be meeting at 9am on Sunday at Albert Park, a stone’s throw from Diakonia centre, where foreign nationals, among other issues, would be discussed. “If Mr Mavundla wants to come to that meeting, it will be much better, because we will discuss the issue with him.”
Daily Maverick was unable to reach Mavundla, despite repeated attempts. DM
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