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Johannesburg - Migrant and refugee experts have warned that xenophobic violence in South Africa appears to be on the increase - this at a time when a high court has declared an Ekurhuleni township a disaster zone.
The Johannesburg High Court ordered in an October 16 ruling that the Ekurhuleni municipality address the plight of victims of xenophobic violence after Somali, Bangladeshi and Ethiopian communities in Duduza and surrounding townships suffered attacks between August and this month.
The order resulted from action taken by the People Seeking Justice Action Group and three community representatives against the Duduza community care centre metropolitan office manager Isaac Bongaleso, the Ekurhuleni metropolitan council and councillor Thabo Motaung.
Presiding over the urgent interdict was Acting Judge Sheila Mphahlele, who ordered that “the incidents occurring in the Duduza and surrounding townships, in and around the Ekurhuleni district from where foreigners were and are again being forcefully attacked and expelled, are hereby classified as acts of xenophobia and a national disaster”.
Acting Judge Mphahlele ordered that:
* Foreign shop owners remain at or return to their homes and businesses in Duduza and surrounding townships.
* The Ekurhuleni municipality address the plight of victims of xenophobic violence that took place on August 16 and October 12 in terms of the Disaster Management Act.
* All emergency measures be taken during the reconstruction and resettlement to ensure the safety of people and property in the area.
* Motaung be interdicted from instigating, intimidating or perpetrating acts of violence or intimidation against members of the foreign community in Duduza or its surrounding townships.
The court order was an interim one and the full case is expected to be heard on November 15.
Spokesman for Ekurhuleni metro, Sam Modiba, said the municipality was aware of the judgment and it was reviewing the decision in order to respond to the application.
“We have until October 30 to file papers in court and, as such, we would not like to comment further on the judgment at this stage,” said Modiba.
Motaung did not respond to e-mail queries about the interdict against him.
Ayob Mungalee from the People Seeking Justice Action Group said in court papers that on August 16, a dispute had arisen between a Somali businessman and a teenager. The teenager was shot. Infuriated community members then attacked all the foreigners who owned businesses in the area.
“The end result was that there were scores of foreigners seriously injured, about 200 shops and properties vandalised, looted, and some were even set alight, and about 800 foreigners were displaced,” Mungalee said.
Those affected were evacuated to Nigel.
Mungalee said a special task team was appointed and the displaced people were asked not to return to the township until the task team normalised the situation.
“The argument arises that the task team members are adamant that the incident is one of criminality and not a national disaster,” Mungalee said.
He said in court papers that more than two months since the first attack, there had been little progress by the task team and the police had refused to open cases when violence against foreigners was reported.
There are also claims that the local counsellor approached people who had returned to their homes and shops and threatened them, saying they should leave.
According to the papers, school children were called out of their classrooms to take part in the attacks.
Community leaders from the three affected nationalities said the situation remained tense.
“Cars with armed assailants are driving around the Duduza area instigating violence against foreigners as we make representations to the court,” they said.
Advocacy officer at the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, Alfani Yoyo, said they had noticed an increase in xenophobic attacks in the past few weeks.
He said the organisation believed violence could escalate in the months before the elections because local leaders could use the attacks on foreigners to divert attention away from service delivery problems.
“Areas with weak leaders could attack foreigners because they are an easy target,” Yoyo said.
The head of the Lawyers for Human Rights’ Refugee and Migrants Programme, Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, said the organisation had also noticed an increase in the number of attacks on refugees over the past three years.
“Over the last few months, there have been some serious incidents in Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape,” Ramjathan-Keogh said.
She said the organisation was receiving two to three alerts a day of attacks on refugees ranging from threats of violence to looting, assault, stabbings and shootings.
Ramjathan-Keogh said court orders declaring areas disaster zones, which happened when a high level of violence had been reached, were a good thing because they meant funds and services had to be found to provide help to displaced people.
Mungalee said criminal elements were being used to fight political battles in these attacks.
“South Africans must catch a wake up - this can spill over to the middle class, then we’ll wonder how it happened.”