Displaced foreign shop owners say there is more to the violence than simply looting, as claimed by the police.
Ask any police officer about xenophobia in Duduza, a township outside Nigel on Johanneburg's far East Rand, and the answer is the same: there is no fear or hatred of foreigners in the area.
The marauding gangs of youths who damaged 72 foreign-owned shops last month, following a shooting incident involving a Somali shopkeeper and two people, have been attributed to a criminal element rather than xenophobia.
The attacks, which displaced at least 200 foreign shop owners in the township, started on August 13 when Lebo Rantlha sent his 14-year-old nephew to a Somali-owned shop to buy airtime. After allegedly trying to load the voucher on his phone without success, Rantlha said he called the network's customer care and was told the voucher had been used two days before.
The next day, Rantlha and his nephew confronted the shopowner and an argument ensued. It quickly got physical. Rantlha says the shop owner drew a gun and fired at his nephew, who was leaning against the counter. The bullet hit him in the face and shoulder and grazed Rantlha's chest.
The following day, several shops owned by Somalians, Ethiopians, Eritreans and Bangladeshis were looted and burned, forcing many of the owners, some who used the shops as living quarters, out of the township.
According to the figures given to the Mail & Guardian by police spokesperson Johannes Ramphora, three people were arrested for public violence in the township last month and another two for being in possession of stolen goods. Those suspected of public violence appeared in court and were released with a warning, and those suspected of being in possession of stolen goods are out on bail and due back in court in October.
Ramphora, speaking from his office in Springs, said two Somalians are due to appear in the Nigel Magistrate's Court on October 10 on charges of attempted murder relating to two separate shootings. The suspects have yet to plead and therefore cannot be named.
Duduza has a lively vendor culture, with enterprises ranging from one-man ice-lolly sellers to large bazaars.
Since the attacks, the shops owned by foreigners, most of which adjoin residential houses, that were not gutted, have remained locked or boarded up. Some of those that were burned are being refurbished by South Africans who say their former owners are not returning to them.
Foreigners interviewed by the M&G claimed only some nationalities are being targeted and that the police were not very helpful on the day of the looting. In some cases, they stood looking on and even encouraged the looting to continue.
Another said that the police wanted money in exchange for help with the transport of goods the traders had managed to save from the looters.
"In Tsakane [a township adjacent to Duduza], the group that was [looting] here went there," said an Ethiopian man who asked to remain anonymous. "There the Tsakane police beat them up. In Tsakane, the shops opened up in one day.
"Here in Duduza, it has taken more than a month. But the people in the community say they want us back. The police say the community doesn't want us."
A Tsakane bar owner concurred, saying that, when the looting spread to Tsakane, the community policing forum played an integral role in halting the criminal behaviour.
Ramphora said the allegations of police antagonism were not true.
"What we said was we cannot guarantee their stay because of the way they were being attacked. They live in the shops. So how can you save someone from inside?
"We gave them an opportunity to move their stock to Springs, Nigel and Dunnottar and moved them to places of safety."
Commenting on the low number of arrests, Ramphora said the perpetrators operated in small groups, went from street to street and quickly dispersed at the sight of the police.
"This is not xenophobia; it is mischief … being led by certain groups."
Ramphora said the community was divided over whether the shopkeepers should return, with their landlords obviously in need of rent and rival businesses thriving from less competition.
It is not clear how it was decided which nationalities would be targeted. Abraham Daniel, an Ethiopian shopkeeper, said: "The Mozambicans, the Zimbabweans and the Nigerians are working. Why are we not working?"
And in one of the township's main thoroughfares, for example, a Chinese-owned supermarket was still trading.
Several shopkeepers said the violence and antagonism was being stoked by Thabo Motaung, a councillor from Duduza's Zamani section, who was allegedly soliciting bribes from other nationalities to guarantee their safety.
In media reports, Motaung was quoted as saying that municipalities urgently needed to implement bylaws to curb the conversion of RDP houses into spaza shops. Motaung said there was a long list for housing in Duduza and the available housing needed to be used for residential purposes.
In a telephonic interview, Motaung refuted the allegations of bribery and said the proliferation of guns was at the core of the conflict.
"You will find that most of those guns being carried by the foreigners are illegal," he said. "The problem is not xenophobia; it's the concern we are having with those guns."
Motaung said what had further strained relations was that a WhatsApp message had been circulated claiming that foreigners were going to poison one of the reservoirs servicing the township. The allegations turned out to be false, according to the police.
This week, as attacks on foreign-owned businesses spread to the Eastern Cape and other parts of Gauteng, the spokesperson of the Somali Association of South Africa, Abdul Hassim, said on SAfm on Wednesday that Somalians had bought arms to protect themselves as they had been under threat since 1995.
He said more than 1200 Somalis were displaced during the recent violence in the Eastern Cape and over 500 shops were looted.
Hassim described a New Brighton incident similar to the one in Duduza, during which a child was shot after an argument over airtime, as a criminal attack in which an innocent bystander was caught in crossfire.
Sakie Kekana, the chairperson of the task team tasked with resolving tension in Duduza, said that the communications channels between the police and foreigners were open and the co-operation was excellent.
He said that, after ward meetings, a decision would be made about when those displaced could return safely.