/ 3 September 2012

Xenophobia rears its head as ‘war’ declared in Mayfair

Yasmin Sooka
Yasmin Sooka

A group calling itself the South African Blacks Association (Saba) has made graphic threats of violence against foreigners in Mayfair and has encouraged others to do the same.

The organisation distributed pamphlets in the area – slipped into letter boxes and posted on lampposts – "declaring war" against refugees and warning foreigners that "we are coming for you".

"We will burn your houses, your so-called luxury cars, we will kill your fucken [sic] puppies [children] and burn down your shops," it said, before also threatening to rape and kill foreign women.

Mayfair is home to a number of immigrant groups from countries such as Somalia and Bangladesh. The fliers were dropped into letterboxes around the area the night before Eid celebrations two weeks ago.

Some foreigners living in Mayfair are terrified and have approached NGOs that work with refugees and migrants for support.

"We don't know who these people are [or] exactly when they are coming. Even if you say, 'let me try to have some people to guard us day and night', you never know when the attack will start," said Sulega Hussein, a Somalian who lives in Mayfair.

"We have nowhere to run," said Hussein, who lost a friend in the xenophobic riots of 2008, in which at least 62 people were killed.

"We're hoping God mustn't allow the same thing that happened in 2008 to happen."

Playing down the threat
But not all foreign residents in Mayfair feel this way. Amin Salat, national coordinator of the Somali Association, said he believes that because the Somali community in Mayfair is large and established, it is not in any imminent danger.

Salat said the association had tried to "minimise" the impact of the pamphlets and had chosen not to report the intimidation.

"We didn't approach anyone because we know that the people distributing those types of documents are small in number," he said. But this perspective was also informed by a fear that others would take on the cause of the pamphlet if they were aware of its existence.

"There is no need for us to take this case further. We don't want to bring the attention of others who are not aware of it," he said.

NGOs on edge
But Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, head of the Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, advised the community to report the matter to the police. Those who were responsible could be charged with incitement to violence, among other charges.

Ramjathan-Keogh said Lawyers for Human Rights is very concerned about xenophobia. "In 2008, more than 60 people were killed. In 2010/2011 more than 100 people were killed. It happened very quietly, there was no media scrutiny or public outcry."

"I would take any threat seriously," she added.

Alphonse Munyaneza, a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR, agreed that the threat is "serious and credible".

Munyaneza said that according to its information, the group calling itself Saba has been operating since last year.

"This a group of people in bakkies, dressed in black, they have military discipline, they are very scary. They don't use violence in the sense that they come and beat you up [but] they are so threatening that, by intimidation, you just close [shop]," he said.

The Refugee Agency encountered the group in Freedom Park last year following an outbreak of xenophobic violence in the area but it quickly went to ground when the police became involved.

Loren Landau, director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at Wits University, said that stronger leadership was needed from government to condemn such intimidation.

According to Landau, anti-foreigner sentiment was rife at the recent national social cohesion summit, and that instead of condemning it, many politicians had stood by silently.

The theme of the summit was "creating a caring and proud society".

Peace and stability 
This came shortly after the release of the ANC’s peace and stability policy document, which dedicated considerable space to issues such as managing immigrants, asylum seekers and economic migrants.

At one point the document says: "Non-South Africans should not be allowed to buy or run spaza shops or larger businesses without having to comply with certain legislated prescripts. By-laws need to be strengthened in this regard."

The party came under fire during the policy conference for the discussion points, which appeared to validate xenophobic sentiments.

Landau said he hoped government would use the incident in Mayfair to condemn hate speech and incitements of violence against foreigners.

"By ignoring it, you just let it fester," he said.

Isaac Mangena, spokesperson for the South African Human Rights Commission, said that reported abuses against immigrants, especially Pakistanis and Somalis, and the complaints that the Human Rights Commission receives, meant that government had to step in to ensure that "the rights of foreign residents are not violated with impunity".

"These violations are of grave concern as it appears to [be] becoming endemic and systemic," he said.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in South Africa said that it was worried about the simmering xenophobic tensions in some parts of South Africa.

Gaone Dixon, a spokesperson for IOM South Africa, said the organisation believed communities could find effective ways rise above their socioeconomic problems by  "cooperating and dialoguing" with migrants.

"Migration is one of the defining features of our contemporary world, [yet] it remains one of the most misunderstood issues of our time," he said.

City of Johannesburg spokesperson Gabu Tugwana said the City’s human development department had been made aware of the threats and was taking them seriously.

"Discussions with various stakeholders that form the migration sector have started taking place," he said. "We are hopeful that our security agencies will soon expose the authors of this pamphlet and severely deal with them," he said.

State Security Agency spokesperson Brian Dube told the M&G that the agency was not at liberty to comment on whether certain groups were being investigated for inciting violence and xenophobia as this would "defeat the whole purpose of intelligence gathering".

"All we can say is that as part of the security services in the country, we are working tirelessly to support the police, in particular, to apprehend organised crime groupings and those working to create anarchy in our communities," he said.