Xenophobia is not new in South Africa, in fact it is two decades old. The South African government has done little about it in the past and it didn’t really hit the globe as it is now.
This January during similar attacks the attitude of the authorities in South Africa was captured in this Times image and story:
This shocking photograph captured by The Times shows three Johannesburg Metro Police Department officers nonchalantly walking away from the looting of a shop in White City, Soweto.
Penwell Dlamini, Shenaaz Jamal and Kingdom Mabuza | 23 January
Minutes before it was taken, the yet to be identified cops arrived on scene, walked towards the store, then away, as a mob of residents began looting.
And it appears not to be an isolated incident in a week of violence and looting aimed at foreigners.
The South African Press Association reports that, in a separate incident, another policeman was caught on camera allegedly taking part in the looting.
This happened as Lesetja Mothiba, the South African Police Service’s commissioner for Gauteng, said: “Police are taking strong action and will not allow lawlessness to prevail.”
JMPD spokesman Edna Mamonyane said the officers in the photograph and their commander would be traced to provide an explanation. But she said Soweto was out of control and officers were outnumbered by the crowds.
“When they are five, four or three and those people are a crowd, there is nothing they can do. They cannot shoot the people and are not like the SAPS with rubber bullets. We were over-stretched with the number of officers to dispatch today.”
Police and government officials have downplayed the apparent xenophobic attacks, blaming them on criminal elements.
The MEC for community safety in Gauteng, Sizakele Nkosi-Malobane, insisted that the attacks on foreign nationals were not xenophobic.
“In the area where this [violence and looting] started, Doornkop and Snake Park, the situation is very calm. There are areas where people are just copying from those who are involved in these attacks.”
But the SA Human Rights Commission has warned that the attacks should not be considered criminality as the targets have been foreign nationals.
“The fact that they target only foreign-owned shops has a xenophobic undertone which is concerning … It seems like we have not learned from 2008 [when xenophobic riots spread across Johannesburg] … we have missed an opportunity,” said commission spokesman Isaac Mangena.
More than 60 people were killed in the 2008 attacks.
The MEC for economic development, Lebogang Maile, admitted that the government had been warned about tensions between locals and foreign businessmen but said the reaction to the problem had to be “systematic.”
“The domination of township businesses by foreign nationals is a reality. It was raised in our meeting in 65 townships last year. Almost in every meeting that we had this issue was raised. But you do not need to have a knee-jerk reaction.”
Steve Skhosana, president of the National Industrial Chamber in Soweto, said the government had not moved to regulate foreign business despite having made a commitment to do so.
“I don’t know what more business should do to get things to change,” said Skhosana.
He said the chamber condemned the looting.
Cosatu condemned the attacks and described them as pure criminality.
“The problems we face, unemployment, poverty and crime, must never be blamed on people on the basis of their country of origin. These problems are structural – rooted in years of colonialism and apartheid capitalism that kept the majority of South Africans in desperate poverty – not [caused] by foreign nationals, who are themselves victims of the same problems,” the federation said.
Attacks on businesses owned by foreign nationals began on Tuesday in Snake Park after Siphiwe Mahori, 14, was shot and killed, allegedly by a Somali businessman on Monday night.
The ensuing revenge attack then spread to neighbouring parts of Soweto.
Three people have been killed and at least 70 locals have been arrested in connection with the looting, while eight foreign nationals face charges of illegal possession of firearms. Some also face charges of attempted murder.
Police officers continued to struggle to contain the situation yesterday.
Mothiba admitted that police were finding it difficult to detect where the next outbreak of violence would be.
“Some of them [shops] are garages and in people’s houses. It is very difficult to say where these shops are . we react when we get information that a shop is being looted,” he said.
Among the looters were school children, women and all age groups who shouted “Siyabangena (We are invading them)!”
Foreign nationals sought refuge in police vans and at police stations while others fled out of Soweto.