Herman Mashaba still scot-free as attacks erupt

In an informal Mail & Guardian survey in one of the areas where violence has flared up against foreign shop owners, residents blamed criminality instead of xenophobia for the looting. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi Gallo)

In an informal Mail & Guardian survey in one of the areas where violence has flared up against foreign shop owners, residents blamed criminality instead of xenophobia for the looting. (Photos: Oupa Nkosi Gallo)

The Democratic Alliance has taken no steps against Johannesburg mayor Herman Mashaba after he called foreigners illegally in the country “criminals” and said they are “messing up” the city, even though the South African Human Rights Commission has now announced an investigation.

The past two weeks have seen a spike in attacks on foreign-owned shops and houses in Gauteng.

On Wednesday, the commission confirmed that it has launched an official investigation into whether Mashaba incited the recent attacks on the property of foreigners. It follows a complaint by a member of the public and accusations by Lawyers for Human Rights that Mashaba is to blame for the xenophobic violence that spread to Pretoria West this week.

“We are investigating the case and trying to gather the facts about what was actually said,” commission spokesperson Gushwell Brooks said.

In an informal Mail & Guardian survey in one of the areas where violence has flared up against foreign shop owners, residents blamed criminality instead of xenophobia for the looting.

The DA will not take any action unless the commission makes a finding, said the party’s Gauteng chairperson, John Moodey.

“When he spoke about the illegality of people without papers, we have to look at it in context. Unless the [commission] comes up with something else that implicates him and comes up with evidence that he has transgressed the law, we won’t contemplate taking action.”

The party’s highest decision-making structure, its federal council, has not discussed any of Mashaba’s comments and will not contemplate taking disciplinary action against him unless the commission proves that he incited xenophobic attacks, DA federal chairperson James Selfe said this week.

“It hasn’t been raised with me and it hasn’t been raised in the federal council,” he said.

Selfe said the party’s policy is to wait for the outcome of commission investigations but he believes “in the first instance, one would expect law enforcement to do its job and contain the situation”.

But there are signs that senior leaders in the party disagree with Mashaba’s statements and believe he should be investigated internally.
“It merits some kind of investigation; it can’t just be brushed off,” said one senior member of the party, who spoke to the M&G on condition of anonymity.

The DA’s former deputy federal chairperson and current member of the Gauteng legislature, Makashule Gana, has previously criticised Mashaba’s comments, warning that they would create tension. This week, he again warned that “it’s easy to label people as criminals but once you get into that terrain, you are inviting mob justice”.

“It’s dangerous, in fact, when people make such statements. You must not play with matches when the grass is dry. When you have ordinary South Africans putting themselves as judges and juries about who can and can’t be in the country, you are treading on dangerous ground,” he added.

On whether Mashaba should be disciplined, he said: “I’m not in the leadership, so I can’t decide. Those that are elected to deal with such matters, they will deal with it.”

The commission’s Brooks says whether Mashaba can be linked to the Tshwane violence “will depend on whether there is any evidence that residents engaged in xenophobic violence mentioned his comments as the reason for their actions”.

Residents of Lotus Gardens, Tshwane – where foreign-owned shops were looted over the weekend – made no mention of Mashaba.

“Criminals don’t need a reason to do crime. All that’s happening now is because people are complaining about Nigerians and drugs, they [criminals] have an excuse. That’s why you see them breaking into shops,” George Ramokele said, standing outside his spaza shop selling fruit and vegetables.

Five metres away, a group of young men were huddled under a veranda smoking dagga in front of a foreign-owned spaza shop. The shop was closed and evacuated after being targeted in a looting spree the previous night. Only two shops remained open on the township’s Desmond Tutu Street: a tavern and a buy-and-braai, both owned by locals.

The looting followed similar scenes across WF Nkomo Street in neighbouring Atteridgeville, where “Death to drug dealers” is spray-painted in capital letters across a wall. Police said 30 shops were looted, damaged or had stock evacuated in the violence that took place under the guise of xenophobia.

Asked why the looting took place, two young men said: “We just did it for control”, before trying to sell what appeared to be looted goods to the M&G.

Over the weekend, two Pretoria West homes belonging to Nigerians were torched by people who suspected they were used as a brothel and drug den. As the homes burned, a cellphone video captured a confrontation between the bishop of the Celestial Church of Christ and a group of residents. The church is based in Nigeria and has branches across the continent.

“We have been here for over 12 years; we pray for South Africans. We have branches all over,” the bishop says. When asked how he earns money, he says: “I have a business, a salon.”

“Ah, fuck you!” a local retorts. “How many salons do you have?” asks another resident, before a voice is heard pleading with the crowd to leave the pastor alone. Then former ward councillor Joyce Mabena yells: “Don’t tell us we are aggressive. We went inside the church, we wanted to ask where is the drugs. You wanted to fight with us.”

The video cuts and then resumes with the pastor’s arm heavily bandaged and his shirt covered in blood. He was injured by residents who were furious about the prevalence of drugs in Pretoria West.

But Ramokele immediately dismissed suggestions that his fellow Lotus Gardens residents feel contempt towards foreigners.

Pakistanis and Somalis have settled in the area in fairly large groups, he says, but “they honestly don’t sell any drugs. They fix phones and televisions, which we can’t do ourselves. I actually think they are very helpful.”

He also did not believe that foreign-owned spaza shops were being looted by poor South Africans. “They don’t even take that stuff home. They sell it for drugs, man. I’m telling you. They come to anyone who will buy just to get money,” he added.

On Tuesday, a handful of shops remained open in Lotus Gardens. The owner of the house from which a Malawian runs his shop said he was scared he would be targeted. “I don’t want them to come and burn my house. It’s best to keep it closed for now,” said the man, who did not want to be identified.

Groups of young men loitered and attempted to pick the locks of the unguarded shops. Police said looting flared up again in the township on Tuesday night but that no arrests were made.

The escalating resentment towards Nigerians followed three weeks of tense standoffs between locals and foreigners in Rosettenville in the south of Johannesburg, where at least a dozen houses were torched in a rampage, allegedly against drugs and prostitution.

Groups such as the Mamelodi Concerned Residents are hoping to mobilise support for an anti-immigrant march on Friday, taking advantage of the wave of xenophobic sentiment. The planned march has shocked civil society groups such as Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR) and prompted plans for a counter-march next Tuesday.

“We’ve never had anyone organise openly an anti-immigrant march. It’s quite astounding,” said Sharon Ekambaram, LHR’s head of refugee and migrant rights.

But the Mamelodi Concerned Residents don’t mind being called xenophobic and members are convinced their complaints about foreigners “taking jobs” and “getting our young girls addicted to drugs and making them prostitutes” are legitimate.

“Who is the main cause of xenophobia in South Africa? It’s the government – they want to make us slaves. We will always be the workers and the [foreigners] will always be the bosses,” the group’s Lekganyane Mokgoka said.

The counter-march is being planned by a new coalition of foreign nationals groups. They include representatives from “almost all the countries on the continent”, according to its convener and Workers and Socialist Party spokesperson Mametlwe Sebei, who has bold ideas about how to combat xenophobia.

These include calling for “community watch groups” to essentially fight people who may try to target a foreigner. LHR and the coalition blame Mashaba and his “inaccurate information about migrants” for this recent wave of attacks.

“We lay the blame for the violence at his door,” Ekambaram said. “There are only 200 000 people with recognised refugee status in South Africa, for starters. [Mashaba] started in Rosettenville, where he linked prostitution to [Nigerians]. Sex work is something people do for survival; we should be decriminalising it, not demonising it. That’s what spread to Pretoria.

A Congolese citizen in the immigrants coalition, Prince Mpinda, has called on locals to remember their African values. “There is a saying we have: ‘You cannot burn the entire village because of one person.’ According to your own Constitution, South Africa belongs to all who live in it.”