Johannesburg - Foreign-owned businesses in the Zamdela township outside Sasolburg, Free State, became targets of xenophobic attacks following a failed labour dispute between the SA Municipal Workers Union (Samwu) and the local municipality.
Their attackers caught them by surprise and left them with nothing to salvage. The only option left to them was to flee and save their lives.
Some residents said the township was marred by strike action by the local Samwu branch and the Metsimaholo local municipality.
On Tuesday, residents said the parties had failed to reach a settlement on their dispute.
Sasolburg police spokeswoman Sergeant Sellwane Mapamela confirmed earlier reports that the dispute was municipality-related, but some residents used the dispute to attack foreign-owned businesses.
Sergeant Mapamela said residents in Zamdela and the surrounding informal settlements of France and Armelia began barricading roads with burning tyres and stones on Tuesday.
“Police arrived and dispersed the crowds. Later these people decided to attack the foreign-owned businesses,” Mapamela said.
One of the victims, Somali national Abera Abreham, recounted how some of the attackers gained entry through the roof of their shop while they were asleep at the France informal settlement.
“It was just after 8pm. They stormed into the shop and helped themselves to everything. They took all our stock.
“We had everything which was sold at Shoprite. They attacked into the night. We had goods of more than R100 000 in the shop,” Abreham said.
When they returned on Wednesday morning, Abreham and his business partners found only empty shelves, boxes, crates and fridges.
“We are afraid. We just came here to collect our clothes and return to a place where we could be safe.
“We could not save anything. They caught us by surprise,” he said.
Abreham said he and other Somali and Pakistani businessmen and women had to flee to neighbouring towns of Parys and Vereeniging.
However, by Wednesday afternoon the situation in the two informal settlements of Armelia and France was calm after the business people arrived with members of the Zamdela Community Policing Forum (CPF) and some sympathetic community members, to help them load some of their remaining items into their bakkies.
A police helicopter hovered between these troubled areas, while other officers patrolled the ground with nyalas and other police vehicles to avert any further attacks.
In Zamdela township, Chinese businesses also came under attack.
The attacks have divided the local communities. Residents said these shops were easily accessible to them.
Most of the residents survive on child grants and allegedly live in shacks because the municipality and provincial government had failed to provide them with fully constructed RDP houses.
“Now it means we should pay R9.50 to go to town and buy a packet of candles and two litres of paraffin. A return fare is R19. We can’t afford it. Those things were easily available at these shops,” one of the concerned residents said.
Zamdela CPF member Tebogo Malatsi said 90 foreign-owned shops were attacked, but police said they received only 76 complaints.
Mapamela said 59 suspects were arrested and were to appear in the Sasolburg Magistrate’s Court on Friday on charges of public violence.
The situation remained tense on Wednesday night.