Diepsloot: Crime, xenophobia - or both?

Inside a looted shop in Diepsloot. Foreign shop owners are leaving the area following possibly xenophobic violence. (Gallo)

Inside a looted shop in Diepsloot. Foreign shop owners are leaving the area following possibly xenophobic violence. (Gallo)

Foreigners have been at the centre of two incidents of violence in Gauteng over the past few days, which has seen their businesses attacked and looted.

Last week Friday, several foreign owned shops in Orange Farm and nearby Sedibeng were looted during service delivery protests.

Then, on Sunday two Zimbabweans were shot dead, allegedly by a Somali shopkeeper after an apparent argument. Residents began protesting and looted 19 foreign-owned shops after the men were killed.

In both instances police were called in to control the situation with the use of rubber bullets and in some cases, teargas.

In Diepsloot, 47 people have been arrested for public violence, housebreaking, and possession of unlicensed firearms, police said on Tuesday.

"Thirty-eight suspects were arrested for public violence, four for possession of unlicensed firearms, and three for housebreaking and theft," police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Lungelo Dlamini said.

They were arrested on Monday evening and were expected to appear in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on Wednesday.

The Somali shopkeeper (39) was due to appear in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on Tuesday on charges of murder and attempted murder.

"It is alleged that the community gathered in front of the Somali's shop after the shooting incident, threw stones, and started looting," Dlamini said.

A number of shops in the Extension Six area were looted. Several shop owners voluntarily removed their goods and locked their shops.
More arrests could be expected as operations continued.

History of xenophobic violence
It might be almost five years since a wave of xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals around the country left more than 50 people dead, but there are suggestions the violence could erupt again.

Government has, however, made it clear that it does not identify the incidents as strictly xenophobic in nature.

"Holistically speaking, South Africans are not xenophobic and many cases are merely crime," Zweli Mnisi, police spokesperson said.

"We cannot conflate this issue and we commonly see this as Afrophobia that is underpinned by criminality."

Mnisi claimed the areas' problems are attributable to on-going socioeconomic problems in many communities, in which foreign residents are caught in the crossfire. 

"When we see children looting shops and people robbing people of their goods it is to us a blatant sign of crime that is being excused as xenophobia."

Mnisi added that government is working with residents to bring the situation under control. 

"For as long as people are dying we can't be seen to be doing enough," he said.

"We are currently doing our best using a multi-pronged approach with communities to address these problems countrywide."

Government condemnation
The government also released a statement on Tuesday condemning the incident.

"We strongly condemn violence not only on foreign nationals but also on South Africans. South Africa is a democratic country that accommodates foreign nationals that are in this country legally," acting Cabinet spokesperson Phumla Williams.

For the most part this was too echoed by the ANC.

"Common crime can't be seen as xenophobia. South Africa has high levels of crime in all sectors of society," Khusela Sangoni-Khawe, ANC spokesperson said.

Xenophobia is rife
But as much as the state and ruling party say the violence is not xenophobic, leading experts claim otherwise.

"Xenophobia is not as visible as it was in 2008 and it may well have something to do with government painting it as crime," said Loren B Landau, the director of the African Centre for Migration and Society at the University of the Witwatersrand.

According to the centre's records, approximately two to three xenophobic-related instances occur on a weekly basis across South Africa.

Most cases see foreign shop owners beaten and forced to closed their stores, seemingly as a result of locals fearing economic competition.

Landau conceded that while these incidents have a criminal aspect, they can't be dismissed as merely crime.

"There is no doubt this is a difficult issue but government has often failed to take action and even fudged the issue," he added.

Intervention needed
​Major incidents of xenophobia-related violence since 2008:

"The media is also falling asleep and we have had so many cases of xenophobia that aren't even in the public's view," Gosiame Choabi, national programme coordinator of Anti-Xenophobia Action South Africa said.

"Many officials in our government also don't want to attribute this to xenophobia. But, in many cases its xenophobia disguised as crime – not vice versa."

Choabi said interventions need to include foreigners.

"There needs to be an attempt at opening the discussion up on looking at solutions with all parties," he added.

"But, we can't stand by and simply say this is part of our crime problem. Foreigners are easy targets and are being victimised – we can't sit by and do nothing.' – Additional reporting by Sapa

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend. Read more from Nickolaus Bauer

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