The rooms are empty; the furniture is gone. The windows are broken and there is glass on the ground. The floor is littered with papers, family photographs and books.
There is a dejected look in the eyes of Willy Tshitende as he looks around the living room of his brutally plundered home in Jeppestown, Johannesburg. “My heart is bleeding. I can’t understand … I can’t understand,” says the 42-year-old.
Like thousands of other foreigners, Tshitende and his family — who are originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo — had to flee their home this week because of fierce xenophobic violence in Gauteng. They are now staying in the garden of the Jeppe police station in central Johannesburg, where they sleep and eat outside.
Standing in the glass of the broken windows in front of his house — a free-standing, three-storey building painted light pink with green window frames — Tshitende relives the night almost a week ago when an angry mob arrived at his door. “They say, ‘If you don’t open, when we come inside, we rape your children and we show you how to do it,'” he says.
The mob wanted to set the house on fire. “That’s when the panic started. If they put fire with these [gas] bottles we got here, then we are dead. Kids wanted to jump from the balcony.”
He points to the area in front of his house that is now glittering with shattered glass. “But how can you jump while this angry mob is still down here?”
We enter the house through a broken door. Says Tshitende: “This was the living room.” He pauses and stares at the mess of scattered personal belongings. “Here we were sitting, the kids were playing …”
He finds a photo album on the ground, picks it up and opens it to look at the family pictures inside. Pointing at one of the photographs, he says: “This must be friends of my father. He used to be a director of Alliance Française in Jo’burg. He had a lot of friends.” He adds: “They just threw it on the ground.”
Tshitende and his family came to South Africa in 1997. He started working as a mechanical engineer and, five years ago, he bought the three-storey building not far from the Johannesburg CBD. The family liked the neighbourhood and got along well with the street’s other residents.
But, says Tshitende, everything is different now. “When we had to flee the house, we gave some of our furniture to our neighbours. They offered to take care of it. But when we came back to get it, nothing was there.”
He adds: “Those neighbours with whom I used to talk, with whom I used to laugh, whit whom I used to share jokes … now they didn’t greet me, they didn’t talk to me. They were looking at me as if [I were] a stranger [they saw] for the first time.”
Tshitende picks up an encyclopedia and other books that were left behind by the mob. “These are very expensive books. Math books, engineering books. They leave it on the floor just like that … For them it means nothing, but for me it means a lot.”
He continues: “If you see these books, then it gives you a picture of people who went to school. These people [the xenophobic mobs], they don’t even realise that foreigners do contribute.”
Tshitende doesn’t understand why people think he is stealing their jobs. “I didn’t steal a job from anyone. My job is advertised in the newspaper almost every day. I go for the job, they phone me for an interview, I qualify and start working. Who can say that I take that job away from him?”
With the photo album and a stack of books on his arms, Tshitende and his family leave the house.
Children who are playing in the street come up to him, asking if their friends — his family’s children — will be back. But Tshitende thinks he will never return. “I don’t know what is going to happen, but I am sure we just want to forget about this place. In one day, in one night, everything is gone.”
He adds: “If they had the power to build like the power they have to destroy, this country should [get] very, very far.”