Francinah Mokgoba with her five-month-old daughter, Khomotso, outside her shop. She complains that foreigners are driving her out of business. Picrure: Etienne Creux

From a distance, they look like they are simply loitering – sporting beanies and basking in the sun. On closer inspection, you will notice that these Pakistani and Somali men are hard at work in the township, turning their garages into shops.

While you might think they would be packing their stuff in boxes and hitting the road after fellow foreign traders were attacked in Port Elizabeth in what appears to be a return of the xenophobic attacks that have blighted this country, particularly in May 2008, they are not stirred. Some even live in the garages they trade from.

At Zone 6 in Ga-Rankuwa, cousins Rubel and Ruman Shakir, aged 22 and 18 respectively, play with two young girls from the township.

“Kerata bana (I love kids). I too have small brother and sister,” says Rubel who has taught himself to speak SeTswana fluently after being in the country for 18 months.

Sandra Mathabo, 29, the owner of the house that hosts the cousins’ garage store, describes the enterprising duo as a godsend.

Mathabo has three kids to feed and not only do the pair contribute by paying rent and rates, they are great child minders. Her neighbours agree.

In other quarters though, such as Itireleng informal settlement, many locals are at odds with foreigners. “You must see the queues in the hospitals, at Home Affairs, at malls and in electricity shops. They are a nightmare,” said Mabel Papo, 34, a home-based nurse.

“We have to compete with foreigners for birth certificates, water and transport. It’s too much.

“We liberated ourselves. I don’t think that they would have been as tolerant of our political exiles had they been running amok in their countries like they do in ours.”

It was here in Itireleng that in 2008 around 143 non-nationals were arrested by the Department of Home Affairs on immigration charges after the xenophobic attacks ensued.

Maria Letebele, 48, a street vendor, is annoyed at what she calls foreigners’ “littering nature”.

“We have no choice but to treat foreigners with dignity. We might find a way of living together. We can teach them to be neat because they are making our places filthy. They don’t know what it feels like to fight for your own place in your own land and finally getting it. Maybe once they feel like they belong, they will respect the land.”

Spaza shop owners such as Francinah Mokgoba, 34, complain that their businesses are suffering from competition with foreigners.

She says her income has been reduced drastically. “I used to make about R400 a day, these days I make as little as R100 because these people lower their prices every day.”

Annah Ramothlale, 23, believes Zimbabweans are violent – “They even use industrial chains to fight” – although she has never been the victim of violence.

A 2004 study by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation to assess attitudes among police in the Joburg area, found that 87 percent believed most undocumented immigrants were involved in crime, despite a lack of proof.

In another yard, about four foreigners share a living space with six local families. Malawian Kingsley Shaban, 59, has nothing but praise for his neighbours. “If we can continue on this foot, I’d say South Africa will be looked upon as exemplary in the years to come,” he says.

But local taxi owner Jomo Sibisi, 54, will not hear of it. “You would have expected these people to mobilise themselves like our comrades did in their countries.

But they are just taking and taking with no talk of ever returning to their countries to change their political situations,” he says.

“It’s one thing for government to award them asylum documents and shelter, but for them to be allowed to loot our resources like this is an insult.”

Sicel’mpilo Shange-Buthane, director of Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, says social cohesion programmes are needed to alleviate the problem.

“Locals are uneducated about the fact that South Africa is obliged to keep foreigners and asylum seekers. We signed the 1961 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and the 1951 UN conventions on refugees,” she says.

“Social cohesion programmes have been initiated but there has not been enough engagement with the people who matter. In these programmes we can educate South Africans and also tell foreigners how to conduct themselves.” – Pretoria News