Dunoon foreigners recall time of violence
FIVE years ago today, Somali shopkeeper Abdul Aziz Husein was faced with a choice – stay in Dunoon in an attempt to save his livelihood or flee for his life.
He left everything behind.
A neighbour with a car helped him escape the township unnoticed.
“In five minutes, my shop was empty. They even took the fridges,” said Husein.
He vividly recalls that night on May 22, 2008.
A meeting was scheduled for 6pm at which then ANC MP Lumka Yengeni was due to address the community – both foreigners and locals – at a hall in Dunoon near Milnerton in a bid to quell any possible xenophobic flare-ups.
Xenophobic-linked violence was already raging elsewhere.
Hundreds had gathered for the meeting, but it never took place. A mob went on the rampage, killing a Somali man, injuring many others, looting shops and leaving hundreds displaced. One of the shops that was looted was Husein’s.
He had also attended the aborted meeting but, by the time he returned to his shop, the tension had descended into chaos.
“People were angry,” he said. “They threw stones at my gate.”
Some of them had been his neighbours.
He tried to talk to them, he said, but they were not prepared to listen. “I called the police. They came but they said they can’t save my stuff, only my life,” said Husein.
He took refuge with thousands of other foreigners at a temporary safety site – or “camp” – in Blue Waters in Strandfontein.
Husein said the conditions were tough. It had been winter, the camp was near the sea and all he’d had to keep warm at night was one thin blanket.
“It was a troubled life there,” he said.
He hadn’t returned to Dunoon until two months later.
Local residents had been apologetic, he said, pleading with him and other foreign business owners to reopen their shops. This was because, with so many shops having closed down, many people had to travel far and spend money on taxis to buy groceries.
He agreed to return, but still fears another outbreak of xenophobic violence.
Husein is not the only one – another Somali shopkeeper in Dunoon, Mohamed Mohamud Osman, said the locals did not like Somalis but still supported their businesses because of their competitive prices.
“Every day’s a fight,” said Osman. “Sometimes they say we have no stability. They say we must go home, but I can’t because there’s problems there.”
A number of non-profit organisations have agreed that not much has changed in the last five years.
While there have not been the widespread attacks of 2008, there have been isolated incidents in the Western Cape.
According to the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in SA, attacks on foreigners have continued, with national statistics showing that, in 2011, one person a week, on average, was killed, while 100 were seriously injured and over 1 000 were displaced.
Foreigners tended to be targeted during service delivery protests.
Scalabrini Centre outreach manager Sergio Carciotto said that, in 2012, about 200 foreigners had been killed. He said, however, that he suspected some of these incidents might be related to common crime, not only to xenophobia.
Carciotto said civil society organisations had implemented programmes, in an attempt to shift mindsets, but this only made for “a drop in the ocean”.
He said that the perception still existed, particularly among those living in poor communities, that immigrants and refugees were “out to take local jobs” and that there was “a threat of an invasion”.
“If you ask people, they give the same answers as five years ago,” he said. “And, of course, this is not the case.”
Fred Bidani, advocacy manager for the Agency for Refugee Education, Skills Training and Advocacy, said that while there had been a reduction in xenophobic attacks over the last few years this did not mean they had stopped.
He said that while organisations were trying to educate people about diversity, there was “no political will” on the part of the government.
Passop (People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty) founder Braam Hanekom blamed xenophobic violence on three factors – that the “mass deportation” of foreigners had recently resumed, trade unions and civil society organisations had not done enough to prevent looting of foreign-owned shops during protests, and there was a “growing narrative of anti-immigrant rhetoric among politicians”.
In February Husein himself experienced a housing protest that teetered on the edge of a violent outbreak.
Dunoon residents had been toyi-toying, threatening to attack foreigners should they not get houses.
Husein had packed up his family and goods, locked up his shop and lived with his brother in Joe Slovo for two weeks while things calmed down.
However, local shopkeeper Vuyani Vantjie said that while locals and foreign shop owners still had their differences, they were trying to understand one another. Both had been subject to robberies and crimes.
Their main contention, however, was prices. Vantjie said he suspected Somali shopkeepers banded together to get goods at lower prices, enabling them to sell them for cheaper.
“We are trying to accommodate the situation,” he said. “We can’t stick to xenophobia and fighting because they also really need the money. It’s how competition works.”
Dunoon ward councillor Lubabalo Makeleni said that while they needed government funding to hold regular meetings and workshops, they had held a few public meetings to iron out issues between local and foreign residents.
A committee had been established to represent foreigners; however, there was “no trust among themselves”, said Makeleni, and it was, therefore, “difficult to get the foreigners to speak with one voice”.
But community meetings have provided little comfort for Husein, who has been robbed at least five times.
During an incident last year, he was shot in the leg.
When he went to the police to report the incident, he said, they had told him to come back the next day. He didn’t bother.