This is a young woman’s experience of xenophobic violence, and police complicity, in her community:
I live in Joe Slovo settlement, in Milnerton. It was Thursday afternoon (22 May). Me and my friends were talking, and my friends were saying, “These foreigners, they must leave the country.” My feelings were different, that these are Africans, and we must stand together, but my friends said their parents feel betrayed by these foreigners, because they’re losing their jobs to these foreigners. So if someone’s standing with foreigners looking for a job, the foreigners will say to whoever’s going to hire them, “You can give me less money than to the South Africans.”
That’s where the complications come in, like say, the Somalians, they have these shops, where the prices are cheaper, which makes it difficult for the other black people, like the Xhosa, because people are going to go to the Somalian shops. So that’s where the conflict comes in.
And the other issue that came up in our discussion is that [my friends] believe that these foreigners come to South Africa with drugs, and that these drugs are affecting their children and their lives. But me, in my own opinion, there may be some who come in and sell drugs and stuff like that, but the other [foreigners] who are innocent, they work very hard, like five to five a day for minimum wages . . . But my friends say, “They’re not supposed to be here, they must go back to their country, ‘cause they’re simply messing up our country.”
But at the same time, while these riots are happening, our brothers, our brothers who are very close-minded, criminals who normally do stuff, get a chance to do things. So that night, when the riots were happening, they were burning people’s containers, you know, where [the foreigners] do business. People were burning these containers. Some of the foreigners were rushing into the containers before their things were all burnt up and they would lose a lot of money.
It was messy. People were running and screaming. It was women and children, and men were trying to protect their wives and their kids. And they didn’t know where to go, and the people were standing and yelling and screaming at them.
And the flames were going and the police were there all over, and the police were trying to stop [the mob]. But people didn’t listen and they were throwing stones. But at the same time, there were policemen who were not helping. There were policemen who went into Somalian shops and they took their money. You know, they took their money but they were the police. I was expecting them to protect these people, but they were not protecting them, they were just corrupt, they would take the money and leave and allow the mob to come into the shop and take their stuff. It was so sad. You know there was this Somali guy on the TV who said, “I worked very, very hard for everything that I have. Why is this government not protecting us? We are not criminals.”
Then there were two guys who stood up for the Somalians, two Rastafarian guys, South African guys. They were not afraid to stand up and say, “What you are doing is wrong.” And what happened to them? They got stabbed, and now they’re lying in Somerset hospital. The [mob] stabbed them just because they were trying to protect the Somalis. The rest of us, when we saw that happen, we feared, even though we knew it was wrong, we feared to let our voices be heard because we saw what could happen to us. If we were to say, “What you are doing is wrong”, they would hurt us too.
So we just stood there and kept our emotions inside ourselves. It was just horrible.
Ninety per cent of the people in the community hate the foreigners, ninety per cent blame the foreigners for losing their jobs and every bad thing that ever happens to them. And ten per cent actually feel for the foreigners, but they don’t have a foot to stand on. Ten per cent. That small. It’s very messy.
How did it start in specific places? I don’t have the facts for this, but apparently there’s a letter that arrived from Johannesburg that was delivered to each police station in Cape Town [saying] that they [Cape people] must chase these people [the foreigners] away, and if they don’t do it then the Jo’burg people will come down to Cape Town and they will do it themselves the violent way. So that’s how it started.
I’m not saying the police started the violence but that’s where the letter was delivered, the letter was delivered there [to the police] because the police have contacts in the community. So I wouldn’t say that [the police] started the violence but it started somewhere because the letter was delivered at the police stations ordering them that these people must get rid of the foreigners. If they don’t, they would come from Johannesburg and make a mess here. So, that night, people did it.
My own opinion – I think it was started by criminals, criminals wanting a chance. When they heard that [about the letter] they found a gap to do these things they always wanted to do. Neighbours, next to me, boys . . . when all these things were happening, they were carrying big screen tvs into the yard, and a tv stand and such big hi-fi speakers, things that they stole from other people.
So when [the violence] started, the people were running [after] these foreigners and burning their places. In our black community, when something like that happens, everyone leaves their home. They run to [where everything’s happening] so nobody’s left at home. So the criminals get a chance to break in and they take things and stuff like that. So South Africans were being robbed as well, it was not only the foreigners.
And people, you know, the Somalis, their shops were locked, but people broke them open, it didn’t matter how locked they were, they broke it open, they took … [It was] our mothers, big women… The other thing I don’t understand . . . our parents, they go to church. They practice this Christianity that says that I shall not kill, you shall not, things like that. But the things they did . . . I was so ashamed when I saw it, it was our parents running into these shops, taking their stuff.
And I was like, these people practice [Christianity]! Like even yesterday [Saturday 24] I was going past a church and I heard them sing and I thought, not too long ago they were robbing people, chasing people, throwing stones at them, and right now they were at church. I don’t know why they go to church when they do all these things.
Because it wasn’t only youngsters [looting], there were mothers, fathers, grown-ups breaking and shouting and going into the shops. They came out with big bags of food and dish liquids and all those things. And in their own way they feel they’re entitled to it, which was wrong. It was unbelievable. They were supposed to stop their kids, but they were doing it with their kids. I don’t care what they say but in my eyes they were criminals, they were stealing because those things did not belong to them and they took them; that was theft.
And the funny thing is this, during the day, it’s quite quiet, people just shush-shush here, shush-shush there, they talk about it. [But] at night people come out of their houses and they do these things. Why do they do it at night if they feel like they have the right to do it? Why not do it during the day when everybody can see? [But] they do it at night when it’s dark, you can barely see.
It’s wrong. People don’t feel safe, you know, when they walk. Yesterday, I was passing by, there was this child sitting there, it’s a girl, she was probably about 13 years old, she’s sitting there, she’s crying, very loud, it’s a foreigner, she was foreign, I could see, she was looking around. I think she misplaced her parents, she doesn’t know where her parents are, she’s crying. And then there are people standing around her. Nobody went over and asked her, “Why are you crying, where’s your parents?” . . . whatever. People just passed by like it’s nothing. She didn’t know where her mother was, her mother probably didn’t know where she was
I wouldn’t be able to say if there’s any way of stopping it [the violence]. If people change inside their hearts, the way they feel . . . They are far from getting over this. But apparently today the president of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, will be arriving here in Cape Town to talk to the people and plead with them to stop what they are doing. I don’t know if that is going to help. But you know even if the Lord himself were to come down and say, “Please people, stop,” I don’t think [it would stop]. They want to do this, this is something they feel like they are entitled to.
You know the food prices are up and things like that now. My friend says that if these people leave the country – at the moment she’s not working – then she’ll get a job. And things (arguments) like that: if they leave, our parents will have work, they’ll get the pay that they want, because the foreigners, they get themselves small pay. If I were to work for somebody, I might ask for R100 a day, and that person, he wants to charge R40 a day. It’s their right, you know, to say that they’re going to work for R40 a day. But now people [South Africans] are losing their jobs. ‘Cause even me, if somebody said to me, “I’m going to sell this to you for R20,” and the other one says, “for R100”, I’m going to buy the R20 one, I wouldn’t buy the R100 one. So that’s how they (South Africans) feel. They feel betrayed.
But the worst part of all this is that they may not realise this now but what they’re doing is they’re being racist against their own, at a very wrong time, because this is supposed to be Africa month, we’re meant to unite and stand together but here we are falling divided.
Some people, they make jokes of this, they make fun. Me, it makes me sad. When I’m around people I know, I do voice up but again when I’m around a lot of people and I can see these people can hurt me, I don’t say anything, but I do feel that what they’re doing is wrong.
You know, the foreigners walk around, they have to look behind their shoulders every five minutes because they don’t know what that [some] person might do to them . They have to hide, and I can see they’re frustrated. And yesterday – it’s a pity I didn’t go – but yesterday they held a meeting, the Joe Slovo community held meeting. Not too many people were there, but people did go, to decide whether to continue with this riot thing. But I can assure you that the foreigners were not there . . . I don’t know who organised the meeting. In some open field, they were discussing it.
You know, the foreigners, they’ve lost a lot. The other thing is, if they must go home as people say they must go home, some of them do not have the money to go, it’s very expensive to go. They have their places, they’ve bought houses here and now they must leave and drop everything. Because if you live in your house and you are a foreigner, they will burn you alive in your house. They wouldn’t think, they wouldn’t hesitate to burn you alive. So people just have to run. Because I wouldn’t choose to burn in my house either.
Some of them have babies. You must see there in the [budget] Formule 1 Hotel in Joe Slovo, the people sitting there, the foreigners booked themselves in there. The hotel’s full, they just sit and the women cry, they don’t know which way to go, who to turn to, who to trust because even the police, some of the police, they’ve got the same dirt in their hearts, they do the same thing. [The police are] supposed to protect [the foreigners] but they steal their money, they do everything.
Slovo is messed up, you can drive past there. Places have burnt, it’s just ashes everywhere.