Xenophobic Problem In South Africa
Running small convenience stores in the townships has become a dangerous business for foreigners. Often serving their customers through locked gates, they are accused of spreading disease, stealing jobs and sponging off basic government services like electricity, running water and healthcare. But as violence against them continues, the South African government insists that criminality is behind it, not xenophobia.
In a haze of violence in late January, an angry mob approached a convenience store belonging to Abdikadir Ibrahim Danicha. They pried open its iron gates and looted everything inside. Even the large display refrigerators were carried away. Danicha’s life was upended.
“South African people don’t like us,”Danicha, a 29-year-old Somali national, told Al Jazeera, while sitting on his bed in a small room he shared with three others in Mayfair, a suburb popular with foreign nationals in Johannesburg.
The violent outburst that led to the looting ofDanicha’s store began in Snake Park, in the western reaches of Soweto, when 14-year-oldSiphiwe Mahori was allegedly killed by another Somali shop owner, Alodixashi Sheik Yusuf. Mahori, a South African, was allegedly a part of a group of people who attempted to rob Yusuf’s store on January 19. His death sparked a week of mob justice, which appeared to be inflamed by xenophobia. Scores of people were injured and hundreds of stores were looted. As the violence spread to nearby Kagiso, a South African baby was trampled to death. For the foreign nationals affected by the violence, the actions of the mob were inexplicable. “I don’t even have clothes … I lost all my things,” said Masrat Eliso an Ethiopian national, four days after his shop in Protea Glen, a suburb of Soweto, was looted.
I don’t have money. I don’t have anything on ground. I’m scared for my life.”
Calm was eventually restored and most foreign-owned stores reopened. Shelves were restocked and customers returned, poking their arms through the closed metal gates of the stores to buy a loaf of bread. Groups of children clamoured to buy lollipops, while tired looking men eyed the fridges for energy drinks. It appeared to be business as usual, but to the foreign nationals who returned to their stores in Soweto, there was a shared fear that they may soon be the subject of another attack.
Danicha returned to his shop in Mofolo, another suburb of Soweto, three weeks after the violence subsided. “I don’t feel safe, “he said in early March, outside his partially restocked shop. He is one of a few hundred thousand Somali refugees in South Africa who have found some measure of success in operating small stores in townships around the country. He is also one among thousands of foreign nationals here who report multiple incidents of persecution. But Danicha’s life in South Africa has been filled with hardship. And the scars, which run across the entire left side of his body, act as a stark reminder.
In June 2014, he and a friend were running a small store in the Johannesburg suburb of Denver, selling groceries and basic cosmetics when their store was set upon by an angry mob. “The first day, a group of people came to the shop. They wanted to loot us. We closed the doors but then they started stoning us,” he said. “Then, on the second day, they just came and threw a petrol bomb at the shop. I was inside the shop.”Danicha was one of four people who sustained severe burns in Denver on that day. “I came to South Africa in 2012 and I thought life would be easy.”
“Everywhere, everywhere I am burned, “he said. “I was in hospital for three months. “After being treated at the Charlotte Maxeke public hospital, Danicha was then forced to rely on the Somali community in Johannesburg for assistance. “A brother of mine helped me out by giving me a share in a shop in Soweto. “Two months later, another mob attacked his store. “Unless I have the capital to start another shop, I don’t know what I can do. “Estimates suggest that more than 50,000 Somalis have fled to South Africa since their home country erupted into civil war in 1991.Many of them have settled in townships across the country, operating small businesses among the poorest South Africans. While the store in Mofolo has reopened, and Danicha helps his co-owners periodically, he has not been able to contribute to the capital needed to get the store sufficiently restocked. It is very difficult to start again and again “
As researchers begin to unpack the stories of yet another bout of violence against foreign nationals in urban South Africa, many of the victims are beginning to feel that the pain caused was not just the loss of goods, earnings and trading days. “We came to South Africa because we needed to save our lives, “Mohamed Rashid, an Ethiopian national from the Oromo community says. He runs a store in Snake Park and is angered by the lack of justice in cases involving foreign nationals. “The law is forgetting us so soon we will also forget the law, “he warned. Back at the store in Mofolo, Danicha watches as his co-owners serve customers through a gate. He is not sure what the future holds for him. “At first I had a plan but the plan has been destroyed two times now, ”he said. With Somalia still reeling from conflict, he has nowhere else to go. Despite the on-going violence, South Africa
I came from Somalia in 2009. And the South African government is good; they let us work for ourselves. I say the government thank you very much and I was working myself and I was looking my food and to trade. Some people come to South Africa by plane. Others come with taxis and busses. But I took a very long route to South Africa. I came to South Africa in 2010 and it took me three months to get here.
This is how I started, I worked and got together some money, and I put this money together with other people. Then I acted like a supervisor. I would go to a place and see the owner of the property where I think we can make a shop and I say can you give us the lease I’m going to work in the building here. Then when we make money I don’t take it all, we are sharing. So if it is, 18, 19, 20 thousand rands ($2,000)profits, it is shared between five people. That is how we work. When we make this money here we working hard. In Somalia there is no peace there. When I ran away from there, I was not the only guy. And I run because from Somalia there was no government and I came here where I can stay and make a life in peace. I got the family there but I don’t have the choice to go back. That time if I stayed in my country there was no law and order, I was scared.
They must do something about these people who are attacking our business and take everything. I think other people are jealous. My shop was closed for 10 days after the attack. After my shop was looted, we came back, and we fixed it. We bought a new fridge, we made a new gate and we put new shelves. So now people think we have a lot of money here, we don’t have the money because they took everything. Because we also have to buy food, we have families to feed. But even when I came back, I was told I could not open my shop. I went to the police station and complained and told them that some people have given me this paper that says I must close my shop or they will kill me. They give this letter to all the shops.
They told us not to open, to go back to where we come from. They asked me why I am coming here. I said I live here. They said close your business, go back to where you come from.
They are fighting us. We called in the police. The police did not care. They did not listen, they did nothing. They said, “Voetsek!”We are not feeling safe right now. It’s the police who are supposed to look after our safety but they say they don’t care. They listen to other people only. If someone attacks us they don’t care.
Despite promises of help, the situation on the ground is disastrous and rebuilding almost non-existent.With help hardly getting through, and so many in need, building materials are scarce and flats for rent even scarcer – and expensive too.
The South African government is not bad. But the people… they really don’t like us. Even when they come to the shop, we are giving them big discounts because we sell everything very cheap. But they are abusing us. Even the police when they come to help you they first take money from you. There is nobody that helped us to get so far in South Africa. We did by ourselves. I am here for almost two years but I can’t leave South Africa. We have problems in South Africa but it is still better than Somalia. I am from Kismayo. If my country has peace, I want to go back to my country. It is my country. I love my country. Family? (His face creases with deep emotion) I don’t think I have any family any more. They have all passed away. You see, the problem in Somalia is if you want to be safe you have to join Al Shabaab, or else they will kill you. And I can’t join Al Shabaab. They kill innocent people. I’ve seen this. There is no law. What we need is more security from government. We just want to be safe.
“Of course violence against foreign nationals is criminal. But it can be criminal and xenophobic, it doesn’t have to be either or,” Misago said.
And even before the onset of the latest wave of violence in 2015, there was more to come.
In early 2013, a young Mozambican man named Mido Macia was tied to a police van and dragged through a street close to Johannesburg by officers. He had parked his taxi on the wrong side of the road which was captured on video.
A national survey of the attitudes of the South African population towards foreign nationals in the country by the South African Migration Project in 2006 found xenophobia to be widespread: South Africans do not want it to be easier for foreign nationals to trade informally with South Africa (59 per cent opposed), to start small businesses in South Africa (61 per cent opposed) or to obtain South African citizenship (68 per cent opposed)
The government attempted to reduce the perception of the terror meted out on foreign nationals as benign, unexceptional acts of criminality. If they were orchestrated attacks, they said, ‘a third force’ was behind the violence, apartheid parlance for acts perpetrated by outside forces, or intelligence agencies.