Xenophobia a convenient scapegoat for Rosettenville and Mamelodi
A high-level government delegation led by Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba has been deployed to Johannesburg south after a spate of targeted attacks on property belonging to Nigerians, which culminated in residents torching close to a dozen homes in Rosettenville at the weekend.
Gigaba has been deployed alongside Community Safety MEC Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane and officials from the city of Johannesburg to meet foreign nationals, inspect the damaged buildings and hold a community meeting in Rosettenville this afternoon.
The attacks follow a community uprising against drugs and prostitution in the area, which was supported by a special metro police task team set up by Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba. But the roots of the confrontation between the foreign nationals and locals can be traced to the beginning of February.
Close to five hundred residents of Rosettenville went on an anti-drugs rampage, torching two houses and a nightclub owned by Nigerians. More than 100km away in Mamelodi, residents mobilised support for an anti-immigrant march against the employment of foreign nationals and their apparent illegal occupation of RDP houses.
Rosettenville residents blame Nigerians for the proliferation of drugs and prostitution in the area, while the Mamelodi Concerned Residents Association in Pretoria believes Zimbabweans and Pakistanis are stealing jobs and preventing the development of their community.
On Tuesday, Mamelodi residents began their protest, blocking a road that leads to RDP houses in the Hatherley area, which they accuse foreign nationals of illegally occupying.
Meanwhile, Nigerians in Rosettenville began to repair their damaged houses and nightclub – warning that next time they won’t hesitate to fight back.
Though the two incidents don’t appear to be related, the Mail & Guardian has learned that the organisers of the anti-immigrant march in Pretoria had joined the march in Rosettenville to the Moffat View police station on February 5, where residents called for action to be taken against the Nigerians, and later set fire to their houses.
“We went to the Moffat View police station to submit the memorandum, but when we came back the community was still in pain and frustrated. We support them,” the Mamelodi residents association’s Lekganyane Mokgoka confirmed.
The collaboration has stoked xenophobic sentiment in the communities, but the protests appear to emanate from disagreements that have nothing to do with nationality.
The eviction of an elderly couple from a house owned by a Nigerian two weeks ago prompted an urgent community meeting in Rosettenville. It was called by local structures of the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters and civic organisation Sanco. The couple had been kicked out after refusing to pay rent and when the community tried to force them back into the house, the Nigerian owner called the police, and they were arrested.
At the community meeting, complaints about drug dens and prostitution in the area dominated the discussion and Nigerians were blamed. Organiser of the protest Simphiwe Hlafa told the M&G this is when they decided to organise a march to rid the community of the “unwanted” presence of Nigerians.
“We stood up for ourselves and decided to do something about it. The community is doing things for itself. We never burnt any property, so to speak. We cleaned it, that’s how we view it. We cleaned the very same property that’s used as a brothel,” Hlafa said.
On Sunday hundreds of people marched through the neighbourhood searching for drug dens, escorted by the Johannesburg metro police. Despite the presence of the authorities, an eyewitness who took part in the march said the police were powerless to stop the attacks on the Nigerians’ property.
“They couldn’t do anything. Our crowd was way too big. The cops just parked across the road and watched,” the eyewitness said.
Maxwell Izumbu owns the De Cruze nightclub in Rosettenville and said he was in church when it was looted and set alight. De Cruze has been open for two and a half years and has earned a reputation as a drug haven in the community. But Izumbu believes these claims are unwarranted and the attack on his business was fuelled by a hate for Nigerians.
“It’s lies, there aren’t any drugs being sold here. I’ve been here for so long and this is the first time they attacked my club and it’s only Nigerians being attacked. The [sports bar] upstairs was also open but they didn’t touch it because it’s owned by a South African. So I can say it’s xenophobia. Nigerians are under siege here,” Izumbu told the M&G.
But Hlafa disagrees. “They are not under siege. What is under siege is their actions. And we are not going to apologise for that.”
The club has hosted well-known South African musicians such as Ishmael and is tightly secured by locks and reinforced steel doors. Outside, a man welds pieces of the door back together while across the street, a passer-by also claims that drugs can be bought inside the club.
The attack cost Izumbu upwards of a million rand, he claims. The tiny club’s music system, five television screens, and all of the alcohol for a month was stolen. His snooker table, furniture and fridges were damaged.
Two streets away, Izumbu’s countrymen have started repairing the front wall and electricity connection at a house that community members said was used as a brothel. Mostly unused government issued condoms lay scattered across the yard and furniture torched in the protest is piled up outside. One of the men, Marshall Abeogo (not his real name), suspected the house was targeted because of the clients seen frequenting it and said it wouldn’t happen again.
“Next time they come we’ll be ready. We can’t just leave them to destroy us again,” he warned.
“The same people who came to burn our place know these girls here. They know them very well. So it could just be the community or family is angry, because the men here visit the girls,” Abeogo said.
Hlafa denied this – and insisted their intention was to bring an end to drug peddling and the degradation of their community. Visibly upset about the threat, Hlafa issued one of his own: “If they become violent and try to kill one of us; we are going to go for them…
“We know where their children go to school, we know where their wives are running their salons, we know where their churches are, the Nigerians. So we are not worried about that [threat],” he said.
By the end of the week, Rosettenville remained on a knife’s edge. Mayor Mashaba set up a specialised task team to conduct regular raids on alleged drug dens, while appealing to the community not to take the law into their own hands.
Three deadlines have been missed for residents of the Phomolong informal settlement in Mamelodi to be relocated to RDP housing in Hatherley; in November and December 2016, and last month. This week, some of the residents were told that Zimbabweans occupied the houses meant for them, causing a protest in the Pretoria east township.
“Every week the [councillor] promises people they will move in to those RDPs in extension 22 [Hatherley], but it never happens. We go there and see the Zimbabweans living in the houses. The people in squatter camps come to my house almost every night to complain,” residents association member Oupa Mtshweni said.
But when the M&G visited the RDP development, the only people found occupying the houses were employees of the security company, the Red Ants. Though the company does employ a number of Zimbabweans, workers on site confirmed they were asked to occupy and guard the houses on a two-week rotation shift, as plumbing and electricity had not yet been installed.
“I’m from Orange Farm but I stay here for two weeks then at home for another two weeks. Red Ants hired us to keep the houses safe from being damaged. I don’t think there are Zimbabweans that have received houses here,” said Paseka Hlaloha.
While a majority of the houses are not yet completed, a handful of bigger homes are already occupied by South Africans, who disputed claims that any of the houses were occupied permanently by foreign nationals.
But the Mamelodi Concerned Residents’ Association insisted their claims were legitimate – and that illegal occupation was commonplace in the city.
“Phumulong residents have bought land and those stands are invaded by foreigners, they have no housing so they occupy the RDP houses that have not yet been allocated,” Mokgoka said. The community leader believes there is just cause for the anti-immigrant march, due to take place on February 24 from Paul Kruger square to the Tshwane city hall.
In a call to action made through pamphlets distributed in Mamelodi, the residents association does not mince its words when referring to foreign nationals.
“Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Pakistanis etcetera are not our countrymen. [They] bring nothing but destruction, hijack our buildings, sell drugs, inject young South African ladies with drugs and sell them as prostitutes. How is that helping us? They have destroyed our beloved Johannesburg. Now they are destroying Pretoria,” the pamphlet reads.
While the allegations levelled by the association resonate with some of the township’s residents, others disagree. Phomolong resident David Japhta says he would rather work with the foreign nationals.
“When a Pakistani rents your double garage you know he will pay R3 000 every month on time and still make money. They are business-minded, so why should I be angry because of that. I’ll rather learn from them than join the strike,” Japhta said.