Responses to Violence and Looting in SOWETO

bullet hole

Over the past month, as many of you know, there have been outbreaks of violence, looting and xenophobic sentiment in townships around Johannesburg, South Africa. This violence, reminiscent of the 2008 xenophobic attacks, indicates a disappointing persistence of on-going hostility between foreigners and locals, and underscores the importance of efforts to bridge this divide.

The incident that triggered the outbreak was the shooting of a teenage boy by a foreign national, who witnesses reported were part of a group trying to break into his shop. The shop owner, Sheik Yusuf, allegedly fired a warning shot from inside the closed shop, hitting the boy, who died from the wound. Yusuf told the court he fired warning shots to disperse the angry crowd of people who were trying to break into his shop, and pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, attempted murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm and requested that he be released on bail. Magistrate Herman Badenhorst ruled that because Yusuf faced serious charges, his documents must be verified before any decision on bail could be made. The case will resume this week. The ASC will keep readers updated as the case develops. 

Following this tragic event, attacks against foreign owned shops and shop owners began spreading, with more people being injured and killed, and livelihoods destroyed. The media has been rife with reports of the brutality and chaos, with images and videos circulating on social media of the police themselves taking advantage of the situation to loot shops. But away from the media spotlight and sensationalist reports, community members, local peace structures and CSOs have been taking a stand against violence and against xenophobia and calling for unity and peace in the communities.

The media has been rife with reports of the brutality and chaos, with images and videos circulating on social media of the police themselves taking advantage of the situation to loot shops. But away from the media spotlight and sensationalist reports, community members, local peace structures and CSOs have been taking a stand against violence and against xenophobia and calling for unity and peace in the communities.

shop owner in looted shop

The Local Peace Committees have been active in preventing the violence from spreading within the townships. For example, The LPCs have been holding meetings with the police and engaging with local structures, the business community, shop owners and especially the youth and youth leaders on ways to prevent continued violence. In Alexandra Township the LPCs have had radio interviews and used media, such as Alex FM, to encourage the broader community in Alex to stand against looting, xenophobia, and violence.  In Alexandra, the LPCs have been using twitter, facebook and social media to alert the police forum, other local groups and each other about what’s going on, and to mobilise members of the community, who gathered to warn the wider community that if there was any more looting of shops the police would be alerted. This action helped stop the spread of violence in Alexandra. In Soweto, the LPCs have been engaged in discussions with Home Affairs and the Department of Social Development to assist Somali shop owners whose shops were looted and their legal documentation destroyed, leaving them stranded.

talking to local youths

To take these efforts to the next level, the ASC is partnering with the City of Joburg, the department of Community Safety and the Local Peace Committees to embark on a door-to-door campaign in the affected communities. 200 people over a 10 day period will engage with the community members to find out from them what they believe lead to the outbreaks, and what solutions they might suggest. The process is intended to give a voice to the community members, and the information gleaned will be developed into a report that accurately reflects local perspectives, and can form the basis of a response that will address self-identified community needs. The report will be circulated to all stakeholders, and will contribute to processes that are already underway to offer long term preventative measures. This campaign will be accompanied by a petition, which will seek to gather the signatures of all community members in support of peaceful and inclusive communities. The process will culminate in a solidarity event that will be held on the 14th of February in Snake Park. The event will be a cultural celebration with music and entertainment, drawing members of the affected communities together, and sharing messages of hope, unity and solidarity from key speakers.

Supplementing these efforts will be a video project interviewing people to capture the stories that are not being told by the media about the positive action being taken by local communities. This video will also capture the event described above, and will be circulated on various platforms to raise awareness about those who are standing together against the violence and looting, promoting peaceful solutions and assisting those who have been affected.

An ongoing series of dialogues and workshops will be organised to follow on from the event, through meetings and collaboration with various stakeholders, including the ASC, the LPCs and other partners, and will seek to target in particular the community, migrants, shop owners and the youth.

The collective efforts of all individuals and organisations involved in these activities should serve to remind us that although there are outbreaks of violence and ongoing tension, the majority are motivated to build peaceful and inclusive community settings.


Photos: The bullet hole where the incident occurred that triggered the violence, ASC and LPC members talking to and assisting shop owners and community members

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