'Somalis are easy prey'

On February 12, a young South African man was accidentally shot outside the Bafana Bafana spaza shop in Motherwell township in Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Municipality. Police claim he was shot by Somali shopkeeper Hassan Alow. Alow said thieves who had robbed his shop shot the boy.

Whatever the truth, police arrived, arrested him and allowed the crowd outside to plunder the shop. Before they left, the business was torched with a drum of paraffin.

Over the next few hours, Motherwell residents systematically looted more than a hundred Somali businesses in the township. Most shops were not burnt, but all were stripped of everything including food, their fridges and even fuse boxes.

Only when the mob reached the Motherwell Centre, a small shopping mall containing a Shoprite and a Pep as well as Somali-owned businesses, did the police give the order to disperse. By the next day, more than 400 Somalis had fled the township, most without their belongings, to the mainly coloured township of Korsten.

From accounts we gathered, the melee seems to have been part spontaneous opportunism, part organised. Almost everyone spoke of a small group in cars directing the mob from shop to shop and carrying away looted goods.

Police stayed with the action throughout, helping remove shopkeepers while doing nothing to protect their belongings. With the Somalis out of the picture, the rapacious crowd was free to go about its business of stripping the shops down to bare walls and floors.

Some of the displaced Somalis now accuse the police of carrying goods out of shops themselves. Many Somalis and South Africans report announcements blasted from police vehicles demanding that the Somalis vacate the township by 8am the next morning to ensure their security. Police predictably deny this.

Apart from the appalling human rights violations and damage to business development in the township, the chain of events reveals sinister facets of contemporary South Africa.

A young man we interviewed 10 days after the attacks said: “The approach for the Somalis to come and just settle in our midst is wrong. Somalis should remain in their country. They shouldn’t come here to multiply and increase our population and in future, we shall suffer.

“The more they come to South Africa to do business, the more the locals will continue killing them. But maybe if they stop thinking they are cleverer than local South Africans, the killings will stop.”

For many, burning and looting shops is but one in a range of strategies to keep enterprising foreigners out of their communities. Four years ago, Motherwell’s locally owned businesses attempted a more bureaucratic approach by issuing a collective call for the removal of all Somali shops.

This effort was blocked, but police have harassed Somali residents with weekly visits, ostensibly to check for drugs and illegal weapons. Each visit is an opportunity to demand—and sometimes confiscate—refugee papers and cash. Those unwilling to fork out protection money risk being arrested just long enough for the locals to clean out their shops.

To get replacement documents from the department of home affairs, the Somalis must produce affidavits from the very police who robbed them. And those filing grievances with magistrates have had to withdraw their cases after threats from the men and women in blue.

In the words of Siyad Hajir, a former shopkeeper, now a refugee in Korsten: “Somalis are easy pray. They don’t have access to the law.”

With police given such criminal latitude, nothing is safe—including South Africa’s internationally fêted Bill of Rights.

Community representatives and the local Chamber of Commerce respond that Somalis should stop isolating themselves and become involved in community policing forums and other business associations.

But Somali shopkeepers respond that they stopped going to such meetings when they ended with resolutions calling for their removal.

South African business people may not have orchestrated the attacks, as many Somalis claims—but few will have shed tears at their departure.

The purge of Motherwell raises important questions about what it means to have non-citizens living in South Africa and the values South Africans really stand for. If we begin defining who has a right to live or do business in a place, based on geographical origins, we start going down a slippery slope.

The country remains a hodgepodge of peoples and values from across Africa and beyond, and will always be so. If we start chasing out those perceived as “non-South African”, will South Africans of Asian and European descent, and even coloured people eventually be labelled as foreigners?

Across the continent—in Zimbabwe, Côte d’Ivoire, Rwanda and elsewhere—people have been dispossessed of their property, rights and lives because someone determined that they, their parents, the grandparents, or even their unknown ancestors came from abroad.

If South Africa is ever to “belong to all who live in it”, to quote our Constitution, how can we deny people their rights, property and even lives because of where they were born? Can we violently contravene others’ rights because they do not speak our language or threaten to out-compete our businesses?

Motherwell’s urban regeneration is a presidential priority, as is fighting poverty and crime across South Africa. With such high-level attention, we can surely find ways to ensure that South Africa really belongs to all who live in it, regardless of race, class or nationality.

Loren B Landau is director of the forced migration studies programme at Wits University and chairperson of the executive committee of the South African Migrant and Refugee Rights Consortium. Hakima Haithar is project administrator at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa

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