The 2008 pogroms shattered the illusion among many leftists – which they had continued to hold onto despite numerous early warning signs – that South Africa’s poor were an essentially undifferentiated class of the righteously angry oppressed. The killing spree left 62 people dead, 670 wounded, more than 100 000 displaced and 35 000 languishing in displaced persons camps. Although most of the dead were foreigners, 21 were South Africans – demonstrating that all of the victims were seen as ‘outsiders’ in one way or another by those wielding the pangas. Some of the killers used the unrest as an excuse to settle personal scores, some were driven by ethnic hatred, others by calculated greed. A year after the killings, I am travelling to four townships around Gauteng, three of which saw pogroms in 2008 (Atteridgeville, Tembisa and Jeppestown) and one of which, Soweto, did not, speaking to community activists and to survivors of the attacks to try and take the temperature at the grassroots regarding ‘outsiders,’ – in other words, to see if the threat of killings has receded.
After all, for the first week of the 2008 killings the authorities sat back and cynically watched the damage being done, assessing, perhaps, xenophobia’s potential usefulness in the future as a divide-and-rule strategy. The bad news is the ugly fact that many in our townships believe another pogrom is being planned for sometime after the 2010 World Cup, once the world’s eyes are turned elsewhere. So how did the original pogroms flourish – and how can they be stopped in future?
I first interview Serge Lwamba and Benjamin Simunyola of the African Diaspora Forum (ADF), an umbrella grouping of African migrant communities which have settled in South Africa. The ADF was established as a direct organisational response by migrants to the attacks on their communities. Lwamba hails from Lubumbashi in the south-eastern DRC, and holds me spellbound with his harrowing tale of how he came to settle in South Africa. His family owned a big restaurant in Lubumbashi, but Lwamba had been active in student opposition politics and was forced to flee with his brother and mother when rebels entered the city. His brother died of an illness during their difficult escape from the DRC, weaving back and forth trying to avoid being shanghaied by the various rebel armies, finally entering Zambia months later. Lwamba is clearly deeply affected by the things he saw during the DRC war: ‘Imagine a young boy with an AK-47 and a man’s private parts hanging around his neck like a necklace, saying he wants to sleep with your mother! The rebels have no morality,’ he says, shaking with rage.
Eventually he entered South Africa in 2001 – but has been battling ever since then with the Home Affairs authorities to establish his refugee status. In the meantime, he cannot get a job and is unable to travel to visit his girlfriend in Lesotho. Simunyola, on the other hand, hails from Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and came to South Africa in 2004 to visit his sisters who had settled here in 1991. His journey has been far easier than Lwamba’s – but he says he joined the ADF because he had seen the misery in United Nations refugee camps in Zambia.
Soweto proved to be an island of calm during the 2008 pogroms and I want to try and find out why, so I accompany Lwamba and Simunyola to the taxi rank opposite the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, where many migrants run shops and pavement stalls. There I interview, among others, Mohamed Khurae, a Pakistani national who before coming to South Africa had been living in the war-torn Kashmir region – on the Indian side of the border. His presence as a Pakistani living in Indian Kashmir had seriously threatened his life, so he felt he had little to fear in South Africa. ‘I arrived here only two months ago and got this job helping out at this store. I have an asylum-seeker permit and now live in Robertsham.’ A Bangladeshi man I interview says he and his brother fled his country for political reasons three years ago, and settled in South Africa where they are waiting for their refugee status to be confirmed.
‘I talk with my mother on the phone, but it is hard because I can never return home.’
It seems that the very heterogeneous nature of much of Soweto, where so many migrants from different countries as well as so many refugees from dangers at home and abroad gather, managed to prevent Sowetan residents from succumbing to pogromists’ sharp-edged appeals to indulge in violent chauvinism.
But that was clearly not the case in other townships where the blood flowed unchecked. I travel to Atteridgeville, the township west of Pretoria, then head south into its sprawling outlying squatter camps. I am headed for one in particular, nicknamed ‘Jeffsville’ after the local strongman, Jeff Ramotladi, who was among those who started the settlement in 1991. I am accompanied by Watson Nxele, chairperson of the Atteridgeville Community Policing Forum, and Ernest Tshabhuyo, secretary of the Atteridgeville Civic Organisation, both of which have pitted themselves against Ramotladi’s own township organisation. Ramotladi’s career is instructive in tracing the decay of many ‘liberators’, especially members of the ruling ANC at local level, from warlordism into sheer gangsterism. This is not to say that the ANC did not murder its way into power in certain areas – the former Azapo stronghold of Dlamini in Soweto comes to mind – but the warlords of the anti-apartheid struggle often had justification for their violent defence of their turf. In the bad old days, Ramotladi was a member of the ANC-allied South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) that ‘ran the kangaroo courts’, dispensing summary street justice, Tshabuyo says. ‘He was arrested many times [by the apartheid authorities], therefore he got followers.’
Ramotladi set himself up in business selling water in the thirsty squatter camp, while gambling on the side; that was the start of his little shackland empire as a shebeen owner, butchery owner, then ANC ward councillor, his makeshift office increasingly controlling the trade in goods, jobs, services and plots of land in ‘Jeffsville’. In later years, Ramotladi split from the ANC, standing against it as an independent, backed, it is said, by Indian business associates from nearby Laudium. But although his grip on ‘Jeffsville’ is said to have waned, he is still strong enough to prevent the relocation of the squatters to new premises – a move he knows will break up his power base.
In ‘Jeffsville’ I meet Tshabhuyo’s staff members, Grace Chanaka, Sammy Botolo and Godfrey Mashigo. I am then taken on a tour of the settlement by Botolo and Mashigo to interview resident migrants – the two guides stressing that it is still dangerous for outsiders to be on the streets of the settlement unaccompanied. Among those I interview are spaza shop owner Shepherd Tungamirai of Gweru, Zimbabwe, who returned to ‘Jeffsville’ in 2009 after his previous store had been looted in 2008, with the loss of stock worth R4 000. He says those who attacked him are still around. ‘They shop here! They can smile to you, but they are biased. They say after the World Cup, they’ll do it again. I don’t feel safe,’ he says.
I am shown a bare concrete slab where another store belonging to a foreigner was burned down and not rebuilt (ironically, the remaining wall has been sprayed with graffiti: ‘Revolution Park’).
Another of those I speak to, Osman Ahmed of Mogadishu, Somalia, says he fled the war in his country to settle in South Africa five years ago. But in May 2008 he was forced to flee from Diepsloot north of Johannesburg when armed gangs attacked his supermarket; he lost stock worth R100 000 and his two South African employees lost their jobs. Ahmed says that although he has a South African Code 10 drivers’ licence, he has been forced to work in the retail sector because no-one will employ him without a South African identity document. Now he wants to return home to Mogadishu; even though it is one of the deadliest cities in the world, his wife and children are there and he feels South Africa is unwelcoming. ‘You can’t trust South Africa,’ he says.
Jeffsville remains Ramotladi’s stronghold – he has been cynically placed in charge of the reintegration of foreigners who were chased away in 2008, getting paid by the municipality, at ratepayers’ expense, for his ‘services’.
Next, guided by Flavien Gagoum of the ADF, I visit the rundown Jeppestown / Cleveland area east of downtown Johannesburg which was blighted by attacks in 2008 (including assaults on poor whites), and I interview resident migrants including Tino – he does not want his surname used – of Nigeria, who arrived here in February 2009 despite hearing of the 2008 attacks. He has even recently married a South African woman.
‘For any little trouble they [South Africans] call you makwerekwere [an insulting term mocking the speech of foreigners]. I don’t understand: we all have to travel; I came here to survive. In Benin where I travelled, there is no such thing as xenophobia, even though I don’t speak French. In Nigeria there are even South Africans and we don’t ask them for their papers except at the airport. South Africa is a nice country and I love staying here, but somehow as foreigners we are scared … scared for after the 2010 World Cup.’
Elsie Tandabantu, 38, of Chipinge, Zimbabwe, says she has been in South Africa since 2007. She was in Milnerton, Cape Town, when she fell victim to the 2008 pogroms.
‘I had a hair salon; they burned it and harassed me where I lived. I lost my equipment, TV, DVD and a lot of things. It’s a nice country, but I don’t want to be here – yet I have to survive. I came here as a border-jumper, but now I use asylum[-seeker] papers.’
Tandabantu tells me that she knows of a house that was owned by a foreign woman whose late husband was a South African and who left the property to her. But she was expelled from the house by thugs during last year’s attacks – and has been unable to return since. These thugs, it seems, operated within a power vacuum created when local councillors, as is often the case, went AWOL, moving to other areas and drawing salaries at ratepayers’ expense but never being on hand to deal with community concerns and conflicts. This absenteeism, combined with a failure to deliver on services already paid for via tax, is behind many of the protests that are sweeping the poor areas of the country, which is why the elites appear to encourage the diversion of class anger into xenophobia, racism and chauvinism.
To find out how such political vacuums developed, I travel to Tembisa where I meet Doug Scholz, the ANC ward councillor for Reiger Park, Boksburg, and former ward councillor of the Ramaphosa informal settlement which witnessed much of the worst of the 2008 violence. It was the sickening images of Mozambican immigrant and Ramaphosa resident Ernesto Alfabeto Nhamuave being burned to death in broad daylight which seared the pogroms into the mind’s eye of the world. Scholz and a colleague take me to the Madelakufa informal settlement in Tembisa, where I interview resident migrants. Scholz claims that the ineffectiveness of the DA ward councillor, whose area included Ramaphosa but who was ‘too afraid’ to enter the township, led to the rise of an informal group of unelected leaders who targeted Mozambicans – most of them long-time residents – because of their success in business. ‘Mozambicans have lived here on the mining belt for a hundred years, but in the 1990s when the migration law fell away, many settled here, started businesses and raised children,’ Scholz says.
So it was business competition and not ‘ethnic tension’ that made the Mozambicans a target. Scholz may be politically motivated to slag off his opposition party predecessor, but his story rings true, as much of the country languishes in a twilight zone where the poor are blatantly ignored by the authorities between elections. A march 5 000-strong to the Ekurhuleni Municipality complained that they had not seen the councillor in a year. The results of this neglect are often painful in a very personal way. At Madelakufa, shopkeeper Elijah Mhlangu, a South African, grieves over his Mozambican wife who has fled back to her country after the attacks, never to return. ‘She’s too afraid for her life. I miss her,’ he sighs.
But not all resident migrants are fearful and resigned. At Madelakufa I also interview Paul Nhanguva, 40, of Beira, Mozambique, a broad-faced man whose animated hands punctuate his speech; he says he has tracked down, confronted and forced an embarrassed confession out of neighbours who looted his well-built wood and iron store last year: ‘I told them “what you did wasn’t good”, and they apologised.’ Nhanguva hails from generations of Mozambicans who have worked on the mines here, including his grandfather, father and uncle. He has lived in South Africa since 1993 and is now naturalised as a citizen.
‘I am not afraid. If I have done something wrong, come to me and tell me. If [the attackers] knew what they are doing to their own future, they won’t do it again. I have lived through two wars [in Mozambique] and can go without food for five days, but they have never seen war. They are like children playing with matches – and they will burn their own house down!’
It is a passionately argued and sobering polemic. In Alexandra township, east of Johannesburg, a picture emerges of at least one community that shares Nhanguva’s indomitable spirit, standing up to the killers and stepping into the breach vacated by the ‘democratic’ state. Comparing Alexandra Section 2, known as Beirut, and Section 5, known as Setswala, Jean-Pierre Misago of Wits University’s Forced Migration Studies Programme and co-author of a report for the International Organisation for Migration on the pogroms, says that while Beirut succumbed to the pogroms Setswala fended off attempts by the pogromists to spark killings in their neighbourhood: ‘The Section 5 community comrades met the Section 2 pogromists at the border of the Section and told them “no, you can’t come in here; we will sort out our own foreigners, because you don’t know who they are”.’You can bet the Setswala reception committee was armed to the teeth, to back up their ploy, but it worked, keeping the killers at bay while Setswala’s foreigners were helped to leave town quickly, and their vigilant neighbours kept watch over their homes to ensure no-one looted them. Perhaps the difference lies in the old fault lines between the worker hostels, which have always been a source of conflict between workers dominated by conservative indunas, and residents of the township proper who have a reputation for being more progressive. But the lesson is clear: when communities stood together, they managed to prevent the pogroms from spreading. I’m reminded of the small, though overwhelmed, community resistance in many parts of Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.