The night mob violence tore lives apart
(The Sunday Independent) – Thomas Chamiso, 32, an Ethiopian refugee, ran the Thembikosi Trading Store in Zwelethemba township, Worcester, South Africa.
A month ago, he was one of 50 foreigners who were chased out of town by local residents.
Chamiso and his four cousins fled Zwelethemba with only their wallets and cellphones. They lost their refugee permits, business papers, financial records, identity documents and driver’s licences.
They slept on a municipal lawn for three nights before finding temporary lodgings in Bellville. The Cape Town Refugee Center, which is funded by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), gave the men a month’s rent and food money. After that, they were on their own.
“Maybe we will sleep on the street. What will we eat? We have nothing. How can I start a business again? I have nothing left, nothing. Who will give us money?” Chamiso said.
“We have lost our humanity in Worcester.”
As one drives from the bustling town of Worcester, where hundreds of street vendors clog the pavements selling cheap Chinese imports, through the industrial area and into the peaceful township by the only access road — a bridge over a waterless, pebbled river bed — it is hard to imagine that this place, where the shacks have neat gardens and children play in the streets, could have been the scene of violent all-night looting of 23 foreign-owned shops.
Foreigners, about 20 from Somalia, 15 from Ethiopia and a handful from Zimbabwe, the Congo, China, Pakistan and Bangladesh, were driven away on the night of March 7.
The violence is said to have erupted after two shooting incidents in which a teenager was killed and a woman was injured. Two Somalis were arrested in connection with the shootings, one on a charge of murder and one on a charge of attempted murder. Both were released on bail and are to appear in the Worcester magistrate’s court on April 25.
In the aftermath of the shootings, locals looted all the foreign-owned shops in the township.
Abdi Nur Abdi, who owns the now-flattened shop where the teenager was killed, said the same group of youngsters had robbed the shop three times.
He said he had reported the cases to the police, but that the police had done nothing to protect his shop.
Joyce Tlou, the co-ordinator of the Human Rights Commission, lamented: “What if next time it is women, or old people, or the disabled? Why are there double standards when foreigners are involved?”
Tlou said it was important to teach police officers across the country about their duty to protect refugees — who had the same rights as citizens — apart from the right to vote or run for office. One of the first organisations to offer aid to the affected refugees was Islamic Relief.
Abdi and a large group of fellow Somalis also asked the University of Cape Town’s Law Clinic to take up their case.
Fatima Khan, the refugee rights project co-ordinator at the law clinic, appointed a team of lawyers and researchers to investigate the case.
She said the refugees’ case would be taken to the Equality Court.
“Our intention is to seek compensation for our clients as well as force police to be informed that it is unconstitutional to refuse protection to a person on the basis of nationality.
“Furthermore, it is true that the police did not arrest anyone even though they knew of and witnessed the theft or looting. Items as big as fridges and counters were stolen, and police have made no attempt to investigate or recover stolen goods.”
Worcester municipal representatives, local community leaders, NGOs, lawyers and religious leaders have met refugees and the community to discuss how the situation can be resolved.
But those ejected from Worcester seem to be stuck in a political quagmire while they wait for answers and aid.
Sifiso Mbuyisa, the director of social dialogue and human rights in Western Cape premier Ebrahim Rasool’s office, said it was difficult to resolve the situation because the refugees and migrants were not homogeneous, and even the Somali community was divided.
Since all those affected were not sticking together, the government and the NGO sector did not have a single forum to communicate with and to provide assistance to.
Mbuyisa, who is a trained conflict mediator, said that he had encouraged the Zwelethemba Somalis and the Islamic Relief representatives, whom he had met on Friday, to get together all those who were affected to lobby the government.
Similarly, different departments in the national government and the various levels of government were also acting separately and, therefore, their efforts were also not co-ordinated, he said.
South African shopkeeper “Lani” Rasi, whose parents own Vukuzenzele spaza shop, said that it was as though the community “were just hungry for violence”.
He believed it would be safe for the foreigners to return, because the mayor and local pastors had told the community to reconcile with them.
At one of two community meetings held since the attacks, community members said the foreign shop owners could come back on condition that they did not open shops next to South African shops, that they employed South Africans “for the sake of communication” and that they involved themselves in community affairs by attending community meetings, Worcester police spokesperson Mzikayise Moloi said.
Moloi said the Somalis would be given an opportunity at the next community meeting to explain their needs and side of the story.
Members of the local community policing forum and religious leaders had offered to act as mediators.
Moloi said the perception of many locals that Somalis were murderous and intent on “killing our children” was an issue that needed to be dealt with.
“Locals don’t acknowledge how many people their children have killed,” he said.
Problems with troubled and unemployed youths were dealt with at a provincial government meeting in Worcester last week. Unemployment is rife in the township, which is home to about two thirds of the town’s population. Many foreigners said the police had failed to protect them, incited violence and had refused to take their statements or follow up on initial affidavits about what they had lost, even after they had told the police where to find their stolen belongings.
Moloi said he had heard of complaints about the police, but he said that no one had provided any proof of incitement by a police officer.
“If there was such a police officer, people must come forward with information. We must remove any bad apples. If they (the community) are not happy with how the police dealt with the situation, they must not just complain, they must come and speak to the station commissioner. Many are blaming the police, but they don’t understand South African law,” said Moloi.
Worcester mayor Charles Ntsomi said he was aware of complaints about the government and the police’s inadequate response to the situation.
He said he had encouraged the police to recover “at least one fridge to restore some trust in the police”.
Ntsomi, of the ANC, said if councillors who had failed to assist the foreigners were to be disciplined and suspended, by-elections would have to be held that could tip the delicate political power balance in the council, as had happened in Stellenbosch.
Also, the allegedly xenophobic community was a valued part of the electorate, he said.
“We are close to election time now.”
Ntsomi said many organisations had come to assess the situation, but none had offered any help.
“They (the ejected foreigners) must register their cases with social development. They can also come to me and apply for emergency relief, because we have some funds, although these are very limited and intended for shack fires, floods and so on.
“Winter is around the corner.”
Ntsomi said assistance for the foreigners was the responsibility of the national government.
Hector Yebo, of the Breede Valley Youth Desk, said anti-xenophobia workshops might be hosted in Zwelethemba before the end of the month. The municipality would provide a venue and funds. From there, the initiative would be branched out to Roodewal, the traditionally coloured area, he said.
The Cape Town Refugee Centre and the Human Rights Commission were also planning to hold workshops in Worcester.
“We would like to see that all the NGOs working in Worcester are supported. We also need to start advocating human rights and talk to South Africans about foreigners’ rights,” said the refugee centre’s director, Christina Henda.
She said the refugees were “highly traumatised, angry, irritable, distrustful and confused”, and needed urgent debriefing.
UNHCR protection officer Monique Ekoko has conducted interviews, the Cape Town Refugee Centre and the Scalabrini Centre have visited Worcester a few times to assess the situation, Africa Unite has made a proposal to the municipality that anti-xenophobia and empowerment workshops be held for township youth, and the UCT Law Clinic has taken statements from several witnesses to draw up a list of affected foreigners and their losses, among others.
The clinic is also investigating claims that the police have been negligent in protecting the foreigners’ property or have been actively involved in inciting violence.
Duncan Breen, of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, said the Worcester attacks seemed to fall into the same pattern as other recent xenophobic attacks in South Africa.
“There appears to have been tension building for a while, and it just took a trigger to ignite into mob violence,” Breen said.
“One of the common challenges we see is that many foreign nationals and South Africans have very little interaction, which allows negative stereotypes of foreign nationals to remain unchallenged.”
One Somali man said all he wanted was to see someone taking action, instead of just asking a number of questions.
“Please take pictures of my shop for me,” Chamiso asked last week. “I am too scared to go back there.”
A press photographer duly obliged and visited the shop, but all that remained was a small brick back office and the facade, sporting the name of the shop, starkly silhouetted against the bright blue sky.
The space where the shop had once been was being used as a messy open-air storage area for building materials.
The property owner, known in the neighbourhood only as Bacingele, sells shack-building materials. He had a deal with Chamiso to rent him the space for eight years.
When the looters tore down the structure that had been built by some Ethiopian cousins, Bacingele also suffered damage of about R5 000 to his property.
“I was fighting to keep my stuff. They took my zincs (sheets of corrugated metal). They just took everything… a mob of more than 100.”
He asked how his former tenants were doing in Cape Town and took a R20 note from his pocket.
“Give this to Thomas (Chamiso) and tell him to buy a cooldrink. Tell him they must come back. We miss them,” he said.
An elderly neighbour, who leaned over the garden fence, said that he also wanted the shopkeepers to return.
“They were good people and their prices were good. We bought on credit. Where must I buy my bread and airtime now?”