Foreigners and Violence: What the Sowetans Had to Say

Background to the violence:

In January fighting broke out in Snake Park, Soweto, after a teenage boy was shot by a shop owner, who was also a foreign national; it was claimed that he was part of a group trying to break into the shop, and the shop owner said that it was meant to be a warning shot only. The boy died. Violence erupted immediately, accompanied by looting, directed largely at foreign-owned shops.

The disappointing series of events has sparked, as it should, some serious re-evaluation of the situation in areas vulnerable to this kind of violence. What caused it? Was it xenophobic, anti-foreigner sentiment being ignited again? Or was it criminal violence – perhaps an opportunistic response of an unemployed and dissatisfied youth sector? Opinions are divided, and the truth of the matter is likely to be a complex combination of factors.

So, speculation aside, the ASC joined forces with partners on the ground and in other sectors to find out from the people themselves what they think is going on. Not just the particulars of this one incident, but what the root problems are in the communities, and, most importantly, what they think the solutions are. We also drew up a petition, inviting community members to sign it to show their support for peaceful and inclusive communities.

On Thursday morning the contingent of volunteers met in Snake Park, and took to the streets to talk to the people. We spoke to shop owners, the youth, foreigners and nationals, teachers and anyone who crossed our paths.

Xenophobia: a story with many sides

Contrary to what we might expect from widespread reporting, there was not much mention of foreigners when people talked about the community problems. In fact, we found some strongly pro-foreigner opinions. One woman said the money she gets from the rent that the Somali shop owners pay has given her enough income to pay her kids school fees, and cover daily living needs. What’s more, “The Somalis here, they give people credit to pay, say 4 months to pay” she told us, “you can’t get that from Shoprite!” she joked. This part of the story is not always seen, and she pointed out that people chasing foreigners away aren’t considering the consequences it has for others – that their rent is helping to pay for some people’s lives.

_DSC0270Pretty, our community liaison officer, talking to Somali shop owners.

The Somali shop owners that we spoke to said they had an excellent relationship with the people who they rented their shop from, telling us that they are like family. During the violence and looting they were escorted out of the area, but felt free to come back so soon precisely because they didn’t feel that there was anti-foreigner sentiment directed towards them by the local community.

Indeed, the report backs after the launch of the campaign seemed to indicate that foreigners were not considered a problem by most locals. Of the sample of 25 responses discussed, only 1 made mention of foreigners.

What did come out, however, was that although the majority of the community are not opposed to foreigners, they are still being targeted and taken advantage of in other ways. The Somali shop owners we spoke to told us that there were members of the police who regularly demanded bribes from them in exchange for protection, sometimes returning on a monthly basis to take money from people. When they were taken away from Snake Park, the some of the police escorting them demanded money. Some paid thousands.

In another recent turn of events, a letter by the Doornkop branch of SANCO (South African National Civic Organisation) instructed all foreign shop owners to close up shop and leave. The community was outraged, and protested by demanding that either all foreigners be allowed to return, or all shops should be closed. Other local shop owners said that it was only a few of the business owners who had a problem with foreigners, seeing them as a potential threat to their own success. The letter has been condemned by many people, at all levels. For example, the head of the Department of Community Safety Provincial has declared that the content of the letter is unacceptable and the department does not support it.

IMG_3339Somali shop owners being escorted out of the area

What communities want

With so much attention on the topic of anti-foreigner sentiment, we must be careful not to lose sight of other factors concerning the communities, which they identified to us in our interactions. Items frequently mentioned related to crime, poor service delivery, especially health and educational provisions, poor local infrastructures and facilities, unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse.

What stood out to Pretty, the ASC Community Liaison officer, was the response of the youth and children to our questions. They talked about the problem of drugs and having few role models in the community to guide them. One young child emphasized the need for a rehab centre. They wanted sports facilities and places to gather, saying that they’re idle because they have nowhere to go. The youth and children said they felt neglected, because many of their needs remained unmet. Above all, they wanted to go to school and to learn, but the lack of basic educational resources, like libraries and classroom facilities like chairs and desks, makes it difficult for them to do so.

_DSC0309Pretty talking to the youth about their biggest challenges

What now

The campaign has been continuing, with more responses being collected by the day. This will all be compiled into a report to analyse community needs and devise potential solutions. In the mean time a cultural event is being planned to bring the community together. It will include community dialogues as well as an opportunity to celebrate and share messages of solidarity. Workshops, dialogues and programmes are planned as on-going activities in the community, and the formation of a Local Peace Committee in the area has also been suggested.

What can you do?

Do you have any thoughts or ideas that you would like to share?

Do you want to get involved in the campaign, attend the event or support the activities?

Let us know.