/ 19 June 2009

Xenophobia still smoulders in Cape townships

”My worry is that my children are going to be slaves because they won’t have anything. These foreign people come to South Africa with nothing, but tomorrow he has cash, third day he owns a shop and fourth day he has a car. Where do these foreign people get this money?”

Small business owners are venting their frustrations on foreign nationals — among them many Somalis — who own shops in the country’s townships, causing experts to warn that xenophobic violence could increase.

Businesspeople from four of Cape Town’s impoverished communities — Delft, Masiphumelele, Samora Machel and Gugulethu — held several meetings in late May and early June to discuss ways of ridding their communities of foreign-owned shops.

The meetings echo those held a year ago in the Gauteng townships of Atteridgville and Alexandra, shortly before over 150 000 foreign nationals were displaced by a wave of xenophobic violence that swept the country, killing 62 people with thousands more beaten or raped.

On June 14 this year, an unidentified man delivered letters to all ”Somali” shops in Gugulethu, giving the shopkeepers until June 20 to leave the area.

The handwritten, photocopied letters purported to come from the Gugulethu Business Forum, and even though some members distanced themselves from the letters, others accused Somali shopkeepers of having a deliberate agenda to ”kill off” local business.

”Somalians want to be the cheapest business people in town. If they see that I am also pricing my goods like them they are going to find ways to undercut me,” said one woman shopkeeper who declined to be named.

”At the end of the day there is going to be a lot of trouble in my township. If I had money I would have left a long time ago because there is no peace here. And those boys from Somalia have come and created more troubles,” said another, who identified himself only as ”Boyce”.

Add the plans to remove Somali shopkeepers to the steady number of attacks and murders of foreign nationals and the mix becomes deadly, says Loren Landau, director of the University of the Witwatersrand’s Forced Migration Studies unit.

”Violence against foreigners is rapidly becoming fully integrated into the standard politics of some townships,” says Landau.

Since the ”officially recognised” outbreak of xenophobia ended last June, police have not kept official statistics of xenophobia-related murders, claiming instead that any deaths of foreign nationals are the result of South Africa’s generally high crime rate.

This itself has fuelled xenophobia, says the Somali Association of South Africa.

”There is a culture of impunity developing. When Somali traders are murdered the police don’t act on it. There is a perception that if people kill or do whatever to Somalis, nothing will happen to them,” says the Somali Association of South Africa’s Western Cape coordinator Hussein Omar.

Omar’s fears appear to be borne out by recent events — in the last fortnight, two young Somali shop assistants were burnt to death, one Zimbabwean and one national of Bangladesh murdered, three shop assistants injured with gunshot wounds in Delft, and another ”Somali shop” in the Khayelitsha was set alight.

Omar is investigating the deaths of the Somali shop assistants Omar Josef and Hazim Amad, who died when their shop — where they sleep — was set ablaze at 2am.

The local police said they have already ruled out xenophobia even though the investigation is still under way. Somali residents in the community say the shop was doused with petrol before being set alight but the investigator, Detective Constable Eldoret van der Merwe, said ”at this stage we can’t say how the fire started”.

In Gugulethu, a local activist group — the Gugulethu Anti-Eviction Campaign — tried for three weeks to convince the Gugulethu Business Forum not to vent their anger on Somali shopkeepers.

But the Gugulethu Anti-Eviction Campaign’s Mncedisi Twalo said after the businesspeople delivered the threatening letters to ”Somali” shops, he was forced to ask the police for a guarantee that they would protect the Somali shopkeepers.

The police have since arranged meetings between local businesspeople and the Somali shopkeepers, which they have closed to the media.

Omar fears that the actions of small groups of local businesspeople could become a catalyst for other people to vent their frustrations on foreign nationals.

And Landau says that as people come to accept that it is legitimate to plot against ”foreign” business people, ”the violence will only spread”. – IPS