Local xenophobes still plague foreigners

By Time of article published Jul 14, 2010

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By Ivor Powell and Lavern de Vries

Staff Writers

On Monday night 1 000 Somalis congregated in Bellville after fleeing the townships and informal settlements where they operate shops and vendor stalls. If they could find sleep-over accommodation they would. If not, they said, they would sleep in the streets.

Monday was the coldest night of the year so far, but it was worth it to get out of the informal settlements around Cape Town where they have established businesses and homes.

Many of the Somali refugees reported they had been driven out of their homes in the course of the day by mobs of residents wielding sticks, throwing stones and hurling xenophobic abuse. Having driven the owners out, the mobs then looted the Somali-owned businesses.

On the same day, President Jacob Zuma told journalists in Joburg that no concrete evidence had yet come to light of an outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa.

In this, Zuma was echoing the South African Police Service, which - while mobilising to secure the townships and informal settlements - continues to treat crimes against foreigners as random offences.

The SAPS in the Western Cape has yet to establish a specialised investigations task team or unit to investigate such crimes against foreigners, and has reportedly also not yet briefed crime intelligence officers to get to the bottom of what is happening in the informal settlements.

What the police have done is to circulate a list of cellphone numbers of detectives or sector heads, to those affected, in the event that any incidents occur.

Thousands of Zimbabwean refugees have fled Cape Town's informal settlements in the past 10 days. Hundreds, with whatever possessions they have managed to take with them, line the N1 highway around truck stops, seeking transport back to the Zimbabwe from which they earlier fled.

Many others have just moved further afield, hoping to get out of the eye of the xenophobic storm in more remote or rural areas, the Cape Argus has learnt.

In the past two days groups of Zimbabweans have collected in Ceres and the depressed fishing town of Vredenburg.

But it is Somalis who occupy the unenviable position of being South African xenophobes' victims of choice. As Arabs in predominantly black areas they look different, they dress differently and they have different manners and customs. But it is appears to be mainly because they are traders and business people that they are targeted.

Somali nationals interviewed by the Cape Argus cited jealousy on the part of local business people as fomenting the hostility they experienced, but in general said that it was criminals and tsotsis - many acting at the behest of community leaders - who were directly responsible for robbing and terrorising them.

Last week four young people from the settlement of Bloekombos outside Kraaifontein, along with two local shopkeepers, were in the magistrate's court in Blue Downs, charged with attacks on local Somali traders. According to the State, the youths were hired by the local businessmen to kill Somali shopkeepers - at R60 a head, with a couple of straws of the drug tik thrown in. The businessmen, moreover, allegedly provided firearms to the youths - firearms which in terms of the alleged agreement would be returned after the killings were done.

The young people were, however, apprehended before the alleged hit could take place, and are charged only with robbery and conspiracy to murder. Legal fees for the businessmen accused are reportedly being paid by subscription among sympathetic business associates from the area.

Several Somalis also told the Cape Argus of alleged extortion and harassment by either police or people posing as police in the weeks leading to the recent looting experiences. In one such incident an Ethiopian, connected to the Somali networks, said his Dunoon business was robbed two weeks ago allegedly by people dressed in police uniforms driving a white unmarked sedan.

Claiming they were looking for drugs, the shopkeeper's assailants allegedly proceeded to empty out his cash drawer, as well as help themselves to stock, before binding him with cable ties and dumping him on the N7 highway.

Several Somalis in Dunoon are renting containers from unnamed local leaders that were seized from them in the 2008 cycles of xenophobic violence.

Though the initial wave of Somali immigration into South Africa, around the turn of the millennium, saw refugees established mainly in trading stalls in designated trader areas in Cape Town like Greenmarket Square and the Parade, from around the middle of the decade

Somali immigrants, having identified a market, increasingly moved into peri-urban and rural areas to set up business. They account for most of the retail trade in informal settlements around the province.

"We didn't come here looking to start businesses; we came here to flee the war in our country. But when we arrived here, we found no official help. We don't even have a Somali ambassador. We started small businesses to help feed ourselves and our families," said Mohammed Fatoule, spokesman for the Somali Retailers' Association.

To an extent this is attributable to a steep climb in numbers of Somalis in South Africa - largely because of South Africa's relatively liberal refugee laws. In terms of the Refugee Act, Somalis, because their country is internationally written off as a "failed state", are automatically granted refugee status and residence in South Africa.

What has placed them especially at risk, however, in the poverty-stricken informal settlements is the fact that, by and large, Somalis have been markedly successful in business.

Like many immigrant communities, they entered South Africa not as individuals or families, but in communities. In most cases immigration has been organised around the central figure of a maulana or other local religious leader. Such figures have tended to guarantee social cohesion, and to promote the pooling of resources - usually held in trust by the religious leader himself in order to buy goods in bulk while selling on the ground.

It is also known in the townships and the informal settlements that most Somalis do not - either for religious reasons or because their residence permits have not been finalised - operate bank accounts. Instead, they keep their money on their business premises or at home. Fatoule said at least 50 shops were looted and evacuated in the course of Monday night, while their owners took refuge in Bellville. - Additional reporting by Ayanda Ndamane

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