Wrightwell Saka, one of the leaders of the Malawian community at Burnwood informal settlement in Sydenham, Durban, was among the first to be forced from his home by a mob of locals in the xenophobic attack last week.
Saka (26), from Blantyre, whose shack is just down the hillside from Gaza Store, where the untarred road into the Malawian part of the settlement begins, lost everything in the attack.
A limping economy, with massive increases in unemployment on the one hand and the cost of living on the other, is among the factors contributing to a scramble to access scarce opportunities and resources among South Africans and foreigners, often leading to violent altercations. After a wave of xenophobic attacks in 2015, KwaZulu-Natal has once again been hit by a wicked concoction of xenophobia and criminality.
Complicating matters further is the penchant of politicians in an election year to opt for the populist route — to piggyback on prevailing prejudices already deep-rooted in communities and scapegoat foreigners and immigrants as being at least a part of the many, mostly economic, problems faced by citizens. It is a deadly ploy used by politicians across party lines, from President Cyril Ramaphosa to Herman Mashaba, the Democratic Alliance’s Johannesburg mayor.
Refugees who have been camping near Sherwood Hall look on as their camp is dismantled. (Rogan Ward)
Saka is all too familiar with the consequences. The former security guard knows some of the attackers — they are his neighbours — but he has chosen to remain at Burnwood, where he has been living for the past six months, since moving to Durban from Johannesburg.
“There was a bang on the door and they just came in and told us to get out now, leave everything and run. There was nothing we could do,” said Saka, who is now living in a temporary camp set up by the eThekwini municipality in a park in the adjacent ward. “We ran and went to the Sydenham police station. We stayed there until we were moved to this camp.”
The attack came in the early hours of March 26. Saka said that a group of Malawians had been caught with stolen goods about two weeks before the attack and had agreed to return them and pay their victims back to avoid mob justice. Yet, they had failed to do so.
“They were meant to be punished, but agreed to pay instead. Only clothes were given back, none of the expensive things like TVs that were taken. Then we were attacked … they only came for Malawians,” he said.
“There were some people from the community here. They live close to us. There were others who I had not seen before,” he said.
There was no sign of tension in the area around Gaza Store when the Mail & Guardian visited Burnwood on Wednesday afternoon. Schoolchildren were making their way home and a group of young South African men sat sharing a few beers in a tavern.
But a tense couple of days still lie ahead for Gift Chilimanzi, also from Blantyre. He was among the more than 350 Malawians from Burnwood who fled their homes. Chilimanzi, who has been in South Africa since 2015, is being flown home by the International Organisation for Migration on Monday.
Unable to return to his job at a petrol station in Westville, Chilimanzihas been living in the same makeshift refugee camp as Saka. His shack in Burnwood was stripped bare during the attack.
“I’m very much afraid,” Chilimanzi told the M&G. “This was really what you call xenophobia. I can’t stay here. The place is too dangerous.”
Seated with about 50 other men at the camp, set up in a public park next to the Sherwood Hall, Chilimanzi, who refused to have his picture taken, was uncertain as to his next move as he watched his temporary refuge being dismantled.
“There’s nothing in my house. Nothing. I was at work when it happened. My friend called me to say I mustn’t come home. I came here and the police took us home after two days. The door was broken. They took everything I have,” he said. “I’m going home. I came here to make money to start a business back home. I sent some money, but now I have nothing. I’m going home with no money, nothing,” he said.
Chilimanzi is among 85 Malawians who have chosen to return home in the wake of the attack, which the South African government has characterised as “criminality” and not xenophobia. Initially 105 choseto be repatriated, but 20 have joined the 250 or so people who have gone back to Burnwood in the wake of the deal with locals brokered at the weekend by Durban mayor Zandile Gumede and representatives of the Malawian High Commission.
Burnwood is one of six informal settlements in the Sydenham area, which falls under the eThekwini municipality’s ward 25, and which are home to a mixture of foreign nationals and South Africans who have built shacks next to middle-class brick houses in what was, under apartheid, an Indian and coloured suburb.
Police spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Thulani Zwane said the attack at Burnwood followed incidents in Greenwood Park and Kenville, where foreign-owned shops were attacked on March 24. He said two people were shot dead, allegedly by a shopkeeper, who was arrested and charged with murder. A woman died the following day when she fell off the roof of a shop in Kenville while fleeing protesters, he said.
Zwane said the area had been stabilised and that additional police officers had been deployed at Burnwood to monitor the return of the displaced residents.
According to the city, the attack took place after goods stolen in the area were found in the possession of Malawian nationals.A group from the community used the opportunity to force them out on the pretext of “ridding the area of criminal elements”.
The national government has also downplayed the xenophobic aspect of the attacks in Durban, where foreign nationals were also driven out of their homes in 2008 and 2015. Ramaphosa condemned the attacks, which International Relations Minister Lindiwe Sisulu described as “pure criminality”.
But Ramaphosa’s condemnation of the attacks came on the heels of his comments, during an ANC election campaign event, that criticised foreigners for setting up businesses in an unregulated manner.
Gumede said after the weekend meeting that they had met local leaders of the South Africans and Malawians in Burnwood and agreed that the Malawians would be reintegrated.
Ward councillor Hassan Haniff said there had been a xenophobic attack in one of the ward’s six informal settlements, Jadhu Place, last year, but that the situation had fast been brought under control.“There are tensions from time to time. Crime is a big problem in all the informal settlements,” he said.
Daniel Dunia, of the African Diaspora Forum, said the city and the province were “in denial”’over xenophobia. “The city is trying to blame the victims, which is uncalled for,” he said. “They are not accepting that this is xenophobia, just like in 2008 and 2015. There will never be a resolution to xenophobia as long as there is this denial.”
Dunia said the organisation was concerned that there would be further flare-ups of xenophobia in Durban. “We are worried that this will happen again. There is no mechanism for addressing xenophobic tensions,” he said.“This can only be addressed when the city and the province accept that they exist, and do something.”