‘These people get killed for nothing’

The headlines of the papers at the newsstand at the Bree Street taxi rank on Monday reflect the deadly xenophobic violence that spread around Johannesburg on the weekend.

”Violence flares up,” the Sowetan says. ”Flames of hate” is the headline of both the Star and the Times. It’s a normal working day in Newtown, but it’s not business as usual.

In Jeppe Street, several shops are closed for the day. Metal roller-doors are down and the streets are quieter than usual. After a night of anti-foreigner violence that claimed at least 22 lives and in which scores were injured, frightened people fled to the sanctuary of the Jeppe police station.

Rajia Rashid (26), from Pakistan, has opened his blanket shop in Sauer Street, but his brother’s shop in Small Street is closed.

Says Rashid: ”In that part [of town], it’s bad. They are beating up foreigners. Malawi people, Mozambican, Zimbabweans, Indians. These Zulu people kill everyone.”

Witnesses of the violence in the inner city on the weekend had also reported that Zulus were among those attacking both foreigners and South Africans of other groups, such as Pedis and Shangaans.

Rashid arrived in the country six years ago and gets on well with South Africans. ”They are nice people, nice in helping you, nice for business. But Jacob Zuma is only for the Zulus, that’s why this is happening,” he says.

Although a foreigner himself, Rashid is not afraid. ”I am not scared. I’m from Pakistan, I am used to these things.”

Suddenly, the sound of a crowd fleeing the violence is heard. People are running past Rashid’s shop towards Pritchard Street, and customers in the shop start panicking. Rashid’s colleague immediately rolls down the metal doors, urging people to get out, otherwise ”you’ll get stuck in this shop”.

Itumeleng (20), one of the people running down the street, is on her way to Braamfontein’s Damelin College to write an exam. ”This is ridiculous,” she says. ”These people get killed for nothing. These people helped us, a lot of us went to exile in these [foreign] countries. Now these people need help. We might also have a rainy day [in the future].”

Many foreigners are now crowded into the Central Methodist church, known as a haven for asylum-seekers and refugees. On Sunday, 300 more fled to the church looking for sanctuary.

Cyril Sikhosana (24) arrived at the church at about 3pm on Sunday after he had fled his house in Rosettenville. ”A group of Zulu guys from the neighbourhood came. They asked around where foreigners lived. They were violent, they had sticks and guns but they didn’t use them.”

Sikhosana managed to escape through the back door. ”Initially we ran, but after a while we started to walk, because we realised that we were attracting attention. I was very scared, because I had read in the newspapers that people had been killed.

”I don’t think it is good for foreigners to come here any longer. I worked here and all my property is gone overnight.”

Now that many of these people are no longer going to work during the day for fear of being attacked, the church is packed with people. John Dumba (24), who has lived in the church since March, says: ”They [the attackers] rather attack people one by one. Here we are with a lot of us. People are depending on numbers now.”

But, according to Dumba, ”they already tried to attack us twice. On Sunday a lot of Zulus came in kombis. They were dropped off by taxi drivers at four places, each group with five people. They were shouting ‘Makwerekwere [foreigners].”’

Bishop Paul Verryn expresses the atmosphere of fear in his church. ”Yesterday [on Sunday] at the service you could feel the restlessness. At the end we gave people the opportunity to talk about the things that happened. That calmed things down a bit.”

Verryn is very worried about the situation, calling for the nation to no longer to ignore the gap between the haves and the have-nots. ”We must no longer ignore that communities are very disgruntled; this is really the poor fighting the poor … It’s an out-of-control paradigm.”

How is he going to cope with the increase of refugees in a church that is already packed with people? ”We are not going to cope. It’s becoming impossible now with 1 800 people. But we do what we have tried to do the last four years.”

Says Sikhosana: ”All these people are involuntary unemployed now because they can’t go to work. We don’t have food, how are we going to live here? … I was sitting all night, there is no space to sleep.”

Dumba adds: ”We all don’t sleep. We are anticipating an attack all the time.”

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Imke Van Hoorn
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