Foreign traders in some Gauteng townships said they were trading normally, if somewhat fearfully on Sunday, after hearing reports out of Soweto. In the township, foreign national-owned shops were last week cleared out by mobs as police stood idle or – in a small number of cases – were accused of aiding and abetting looters.
But even as Soweto seemed to be normalising, and promises of firmer police action came thick and fast at the time, foreign nationals across the province flagged local politics as a continuing threat to their safety.
“When the people come [to loot our shops] it is the politics,” said a Diepsloot shopkeeper, who prefers only to be identified as Mohammed. “People come when they are angry; they are not hungry. The leaders make them angry.”
Police confirmed that Dieplsoot had seen isolated attacks on shops, but said they had the situation under control. Mohammed agreed, but asked the question on many of his compatriot’s lips: “For how long?”
The answer, an array of facts suggests, may be: until 2016 election campaigning gets dirty.
On Sunday deputy minister in the presidency Buti Manamela led a prayer meeting in Soweto and condemnation of attacks on shops in townships continued from many levels of government, though many steered clear of using the word “xenophobia”.
Even as Manamela was spreading the official government message, that crime will not be tolerated, in Soweto, supporters of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF) marched in Yeoville to reassure those from elsewhere in the continent that the majority of South Africans were not xenophobic. The majority of South Africans but perhaps not all its government.
“The xenophobic attitude has been institutionalised,” said ADF leader Marc Gbaffou. “We see institutions of the state excuse themselves from anything to do with migration, and we are saying ‘we are worried’.”
The ADF, a range of other organisations in the space of migration, academics studying the field and even the African Union’s peer-review mechanism, have all criticised the South African government’s lack of firm action since the widespread 2008 xenophobic attacks, in which more than 60 people were killed, most of them foreign nationals.
An inter-ministerial committee on xenophobia came and went, then came and went again, a national action plan was drafted to combat xenophobia, along with racism and discrimination based on gender, speeches were made and statements issued.
On the ground, though, those in the firing line are not feeling any more secure for these somewhat desultory efforts.
“We get these reports every week, of some [foreign nationals] chased away or killed,” said Gbaffou. “When somebody is killed the police come, but by that point somebody is already dead. Then, after fifty people break into a place in the daylight they say they can not find the criminals.”
Xenophobia has worsened
Amid that perceived disinterest by authorities there are strong indications, both through data and anecdotally that xenophobia had worsened in recent years.
In August last year a massive study by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a joint project involving several universities and city governments, found that 35% of all respondents wanted “all foreigners” sent packing.
Meanwhile, an early-warning intelligence system supposedly created in the wake of the 2008 bloodshed, to alert authorities of brewing trouble, seemed to have not functioned at all ahead of the Soweto looting. Local area police said they had received “nothing” through formal intelligence channels, and had been caught entirely unprepared.
If history repeats itself, that bodes ill for the 2016 local government elections.
Competition for local resources
In the wake of the 2008 killings persuasive research linked the violence to competition for local resources, not just in spaza-shop market share or government housing, but in political power.
“In explaining the timing and location of violence, this study’s findings are that in almost all cases where violence occurred, it was organised and led by local groups and individuals in an effort to claim or consolidate the authority and power needed to further their political and economic interests,” read the findings of a 2009 study published by the International Organisation for Migration.
“It therefore finds that most violence against non-nationals and other ‘outsiders’ which occurred in May 2008 is rooted in the micro-politics of the country’s townships and informal settlements.”
In political circles the mistrust of foreigners in poorer communities, though rarely spoken of, is well recognised.
In early January Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi decried Chinese involvement in “smuggling” and home building, tweeting at one point: “We condemn xenophobia but the current displacement of Africans even in spaza shops mainly by guys from [the] East is not politically sustainable.”
That makes for an explosive atmosphere for the elections due to take place in the first half of 2016, which will see hard campaigning in several areas.
The ANC will find itself under pressure from new entrants such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, and perhaps the emerging United Front, and there is evidence the ruling party will be sorely pressed in key areas such as Port Elizabeth. The state of local delivery of water, electricity and housing all also suggest a fierce election.
“Deep dissatisfaction with the local sphere in particular, across the board, suggesting that the 2016 local elections are going to be very keenly fought,” the Gauteng City-Region Observatory concluded from its study.
In such circumstances the candidate or party that reaches for the abundant anti-foreign national sentiment in some communities could, conceivably, have the edge over competitors . And in what some see as a vacuum of condemnation of xenophobia, they could well feel emboldened to do so.
“There is no danger to saying bad things about foreigners,” said the ADF’s Gbaffou. “We want from government a clear message that can not be misunderstood. We have not got it from them yet.”
And if it is not too much trouble, the foreigners most under threat would like it sooner rather than later.
“This I think is not going to be good news for us,” said a Bangladeshi shopkeeper trading on the outskirts of Lenasia on being told about the upcoming elections. “Maybe the government can please do something for us before then.”