/ 22 May 2008

‘We should not look for scapegoats’

A Somali community in Johannesburg on Thursday accused police of firing live ammunition at its members as more xenophobic attacks were reported in Gauteng and former Cabinet minister Kader Asmal questioned claims of ‘third force’ involvement in the attacks.

At least 42 people have been killed and 17 000 displaced in the fierce violence that started in Alexandra on May 12.

Tensions are running high among communities of foreign nationals who have come under attack in the past week. Scores of Somalis have fled Gauteng townships to Mayfair in central Johannesburg, where there is a large Somali community.

Acting on a tip-off from a member of the community, Mail & Guardian reporters arrived in Mayfair on Thursday to find a police vehicle that had been stoned by angry Somali men. Central and Hanover streets were cordoned off and a large contingent of police officers was on the scene.

A police van stood in the middle of the road amid shattered glass, bricks and paving stones.

Community leader Mohammed Abdul Hakir said the clash with police was sparked when police officers attempted to arrest two Somali men.

Witnesses said police had stopped two young men and asked for their papers. One of the men tried to run away and was pursued by police officers. Police allegedly broke a locked gate and entered a nearby building that houses a community crèche.

Community members handed a shell casing to the M&G and pointed out a hole in the concrete outside the crèche, which they alleged was caused by an officer who fired live ammunition from a pistol at the fleeing man.

Angry onlookers wanted to know why police were using live ammunition in an area with so many children. Abbas Mohammed, aged nine, said: ”They almost shot us with a gun.”

Hakir said: ”People are on edge,” adding that those involved in the clash were people who had been driven out of the townships this week. ”They said [to the police], ‘When we are being looted, you are not there. So why are you shooting now?”’

He also said that community leaders had asked police to stand down and allow them to calm people down, but they refused. A stand-off ensued between the crowd and police, which led to the stoning of the police vehicle.

Thirty-five people were arrested, Hakir said. Police on the scene also threatened to arrest M&G photographer Tracy Lee Stark for taking photographs without their permission.

Numerous Somali people on the scene complained to the M&G about being hassled by corrupt police officials asking them for bribes. They claimed it is an everyday occurrence, with a South African resident agreeing, alleging police come ”every weekend to take money from the foreigners”.

An average bribe is reportedly between R2 000 and R5 000.

Firdose Ali (not her real name) said: ”They always come to ask for papers. If you don’t have, you must give them money. They search our rooms and take anything they want, like phones and TVs. If you can afford to give them money, you can get your stuff back. The bad ones are from John Vorster [police station].”

Another witness on the scene, Abdul Bille Hassan — a survivor of past xenophobic violence in Pretoria — recalled: ”We had a shop and in the middle of the night [at the time] they came and poured petrol around the house.”

He spent three months in hospital and has become increasingly distressed this week by the wave of attacks.

Renewed violence

Meanwhile, xenophobic violence broke out again in Ramaphosa informal settlement on the East Rand on Thursday, the South African Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The renewed attacks, in which a number of shacks were set alight, happened as Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the Kenyan high commissioner to South Africa, Thomas Amolo, visited foreigners affected by the recent violence in the area.

No injuries had been reported by 2.45pm, the broadcaster said. Six people believed to be behind recent attacks in the area that claimed four lives were arrested. Police were not immediately available for comment.

Hostel raids by the police and the military in Johannesburg on Thursday netted 28 arrests, police said. The operations were conducted at the Wolhuter and George Goch hostels in Jeppe and the Denver hostel in Cleveland.

National police spokesperson Director Sally de Beer said the cordon-and-search operations were ”aimed at restoring peace and stability in various areas of the province which have been plagued with violence over the past several days”.

She said the arrests were not in direct connection with the xenophobic violence, but further investigations and interrogation would reveal possible involvement.

The operation was conducted jointly by the South African Police Service and the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) in the early hours of Thursday. The SANDF’s assistance in this particular operation was authorised by President Thabo Mbeki on Wednesday.

Other such joint ventures would ”definitely” follow in the near future, De Beer said.

The whereabouts of the more than 400 people reportedly arrested in connection with xenophobic attacks in the past week remained unclear on Thursday.

”It is difficult for me [to know what is happening to all those arrested]. We have arrested over 400 people. Many would have appeared in court and had their cases remanded … We have 48 hours [after arrest] to investigate,” provincial police spokesperson Govindsamy Mariemuthoo said.

He said the charges included counts of murder, house robbery, theft and acts of public violence.

Seven people were arrested for a number of attacks involving foreigners in different Durban suburbs, police said on Thursday. However, police spokesperson Director Phindile Radebe said while foreigners were involved in the cases of arson, assault and common robbery, police believed the attacks were not xenophobic.

Call for amnesty

Former Cabinet minister Kader Asmal on Thursday called on the government to declare an amnesty for migrants in South Africa without legal documents.

Speaking at the University of the Western Cape, Asmal said it is time to again consider an amnesty to provide some solace to the thousands who have lost their homes, documents and their hopes, ”following the dastardly attacks against them” in Gauteng over the past fortnight.

The Home Affairs Department’s decision to refrain from deporting those victimised in the attacks who cannot provide documents goes part of the way to integrate the displaced migrants.

”But much more needs to be done to remove the fear, sense of hopelessness and despair that thousands of our fellow Africans feel at present. An amnesty would be part of the process,” Asmal said. ”We take pride in the values of our Constitution, especially those relating to the right to dignity, because ‘everyone matters’ as has been said.”

However, the protection of the Constitution is not limited to citizens. It embraces all those who live in South Africa. ”But we have collectively remained silent at the abuse, of police power, at the arrogance and cruelty of officials, the occasional heartlessness of our medical services and previous violence against migrants.

”We have betrayed the children of the African diaspora by not helping our fellow South African citizens to understand who these ‘strangers at the gate’ were, why they were in South Africa and what value they are adding to our economic and civic life,” he said.

It should be recognised that many migrants have a stake in this country as they have permanent residence status, which the Constitutional Court has recognised as providing them with entitlement to welfare benefits.

”We have failed to acknowledge our moral duty towards our fellow human beings. If there are ‘third force’ elements involved, why have our security forces not identified them? We should not, though, look for scapegoats,” Asmal said.

”What we need now is to support our chief justice’s call to all our people to do everything in their power to bring an end to these attacks; to foster understanding among all our people, including those who come from beyond our borders; and to promote respect for the rule of law and the rights of all human beings,” he said.