‘KING of kings” says the T-shirt salutation to Haille Selassie. But the Ethiopians in the room don’t feel like the people of an emperor. They say they feel less than human. They feel like animals.
“The underwear I have on is not my own, it’s been given to me,” says Tarekegn Mulatu, through community leader Abtamu Abe Shuke.
“I never expected this; they took everything,” he says.
Mulatu is referring to May 23, the day his neighbours in KwaThema used the excuse of a service delivery protest to turn on foreign-owned stores, looting and destroying tuckshops and spazas in the East Rand township.
Since that day, Mulatu and about 150 other Ethiopians, most of them men, have been holed up in a back room of a makeshift church in nearby Dunnottar. There are a few donated mattresses, plastic chairs, a crate of cooldrinks and broken fridges – all empty. They’ve been surviving on donations from local churches but they can’t stay much longer. They’re too scared to return to their shops and homes in KwaThema, a few kilometres away, and there’s nothing to return to anyway.
Kegne Shameso Meshamo was a soldier back in the Horn of Africa, but found himself disheartened by the political leadership. South Africa with its constitution and democratic transition appealed to him. In the seven years he’s been here he’s opened a spaza shop.
Meshamo says: “Now we are here in the church with no food, no clothes, waiting for donations when we were working before, not asking for anything.”
Back in KwaThema, Meshamo shows what’s left of his shop. The roll-up door pushes up to reveal the debris of his working life – a few rotten onions, scattered sweets among smashed bits of counter tops. Before Meshamo can elaborate, community leader Abebe shoos everyone back into the car.
“The car was stoned last time we came,” he says, frightened, as two old ladies walk past and a clot of primary schoolchildren mill about.
Anyone could be an enemy, it seems.
Shuke translates one story after another. Everyone gives their names by pulling a piece of paper in a plastic protector from their pockets. It’s a Homes Affairs document they carry at all times. Their names are sometimes misspelt, but no one has bothered to get it right, they say. Their status is identical: “asylum seeker” – people who have fled their country because they fear persecution.
Another common thread is a finger pointed at the Tsakane police. The allegations range from sitting back and letting looters do as they please, dismissing their claims of theft, harassment and assault, refusing to open cases and even the police being part of the looting themselves.
Tsakane police station commander Colonel Petro Shilane says he’s unaware of any complaints.
“I know only one case of a man whose groceries were brought to the police station and when he came three days later to collect them he said things were stolen, so we’re investigating,” he says.
Shilane admits, though, that there’s a problem if allegations exist without him having a record of cases opened. He says: “It is not our job to question the legislation or to make judgment on who is in the country. Our job is to protect people, whoever they are, and make sure they have a safe environment to live in.”
But he adds: “I can’t guarantee the Ethiopians’ safety in KwaThema. That day things were bad, the community was hungry to attack them and so unless we are their bodyguards I can’t guarantee their safety.”
Shilane has committed to establishing a community forum specifically to deal with issues involving foreign nationals and fighting xenophobia. He says May 23 was an “eye opener”. At the same time, though, he says there are no specific plans to highlight these issues among his own ranks.
Dr Loren Landau, director of Wits University’s African Centre for Migration and Society, says that there are conversations the country still has to have to understand the root causes of xenophobia.
“The government refuses to acknowledge that our black population is divided along ethnicity, space and class, and these are growing inequalities. It divides people and people who feel disadvantaged will act out, and foreign nationals are often the target,” says Landau.
He adds: “South Africa has a backward-looking plan for moving forward. Instead of focusing on redressing past injustices, we should be aiming for equality for all who live here now.”
Landau warns that xenophobia is not an issue that peaked with the riots of May 2008 and vanished. It’s also not rage directed only at foreign nationals but a storm that can pass over anyone who is seen as non-local at any time.
Teshome Melese, who is seven-months pregnant, and her husband Genet Fikeka are also among the Ethiopians exiled from KwaThema.
Melese is one of a handful of women living with the men in the church. It’s an uncomfortable situation. She lifts her skirt slightly. She’s wearing sandals even as the highveld winter has taken hold, it’s the shoes she was wearing on the day of the looting.
“I ran when I saw the people coming up the street and I fell,” she shows scars on her shin.
“They did not care that I was pregnant.”
She joined Fikeka in South Africa just over a year ago after being apart for six years. She says she expected things to be tough, but she did not expect to have to run for her life.
Their shop was cleaned out too. The painted pictures of mielie meal, bread and airtime logos on the outside walls are the only clues there were once traders there.
Her child will be born a South African. But she just shakes her head at the idea, it means nothing.
“Only God knows now what will happen to us,” she says.