JOHANNESBURG — For days, the rumors had been slowly snaking their way across the city, carried on the backs of text messages and whispered conversation. “Zulu people are coming to town ... to kill every foreigner on the road,” read one widely circulated message. “Xenophobic attack is just around the corner,” announced another. “Take it serious our friends r killed like Coackroaches.”
But it wasn’t until darkness slunk across Johannesburg Thursday night that Khairul Islam and Hasan Miah decided to take those warnings seriously. Instead of barricading themselves inside their small grocery store, as they had done each evening at closing time for the past three years, the two Bangladeshis locked the doors from the outside and followed a friend to his house nearby.
They had barely arrived when their phones began to buzz, carrying a warbled, panicked message from an acquaintance who had just driven past the shop.
Come quickly, he said, they’re taking everything.
By the time Islam and Miah returned, the looters were gone, and splayed out on the floor in front of them lay the contents of their lives — or what was left, anyway. The shelves were empty, the floors coated in a viscous paste of custard, cheese puffs, and broken glass. A brisk autumn breeze swept in through the gaping doorframe, sending a ghostly cloud of maize swirling into the vacant aisles.
“There is good money in this country, so the life here is not so bad for us, ” Miah told The Daily Beast, surveying the battered storefront. “But now the shop is empty. All of that is gone. My mind isn’t working to figure out what we will do now.”The Bangladeshi duo’s gutted shop joins a growing list of homes and properties destroyed over the past several days, as a wave of xenophobic violence that began more than three weeks ago in the eastern port city of Durban crept westward into the country’s economic heartland, Johannesburg. Seven people have died and more than 300 have been arrested across the country so far, with scattered violence continuing into the new week.
Collectively, the attacks are among the worst since May 2008, when at least 62 people died and tens of thousands fled to displaced persons camps around the country in a similar wave of violence.
Those attacks touched off a nationwide soul-searching, replete with committees and academic studies promising to understand how and why Nelson Mandela’s adolescent-aged rainbow nation—a country with among the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers of any in the world—had turned so suddenly and violently against itself.
But as the collection of possible explanations grew, it began to resemble simply a laundry list of post-apartheid South Africa’s greatest social ills: high unemployment, scarce resources, toxic politics. Even the supposed catalyst for the violence—hatred of foreigners—grew blurry as it emerged that many of those killed and looted in the violence had been South Africans. In the intervening years, few of the conditions that brought on the 2008 violence have changed significantly, experts say, and a growing economic malaise—characterized by strikes, depreciating currency, and persistently low levels of employment—has made the risk of fresh attacks ever-present.“There’s no simple answer to why this keeps happening, but it’s occurring in the context of very high unemployment,” says Gareth Newham, head of the governance, crime, and security research unit at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. That joblessness has driven a myth in poor communities that foreigners are stealing work from South Africans, he says, a problem further exacerbated by an incorrect perception that foreigners are the primary agents of the country’s high crime rate. Indeed, xenophobic violence has become a numbingly familiar occurrence for many here. In Johannesburg, for instance, it has been only three months since the alleged murder of a South African teenager by a Somali shopkeeper in Soweto touched off several days of rioting and looting.The latest attacks began in Durban at the end of March, just days after Goodwill Zwelithini, king of South Africa’s largest ethnic group, the Zulus, called for all foreigners in the country to “pack their belongings and go back to their countries.”
“As I speak you find their unsightly goods hanging all over our shops,” he told an approving crowd at the Pongola Country Club in the KwaZulu Natal province March 20. “They dirty our streets. We cannot even recognize which shop is which—there are foreigners everywhere.” Zwelithini later said his words had been distorted by the press.
To date, more than 3,000 people have fled to their home countries or tent cities hastily erected on the city’s edges, according to The Guardian. Seven people were dead, including a 14-year-old South African boy apparently shot during a looting spree in Durban and a Mozambican man hacked to death on the streets of Johannesburg’s Alexandra township over the weekend.
Sisasenkosi Mdolongwa was sitting in her tin shack in a squatter settlement near Primrose, east of Johannesburg, last Wednesday when she heard sharp whistles, then the crack of gunshots outside. When she opened her door, a crowd was gathered outside with rocks and machetes, threatening to kill any foreigners who didn’t leave immediately.
Mdolongwa, who is from Zimbabwe, didn’t have to be asked twice. She fled, taking nothing but the clothes she was wearing.
“We were looking in the faces of these people and we could see they were our neighbors,” she says, standing outside the tarp tent she is sharing with 20 other women and babies in a hastily constructed camp outside the Primrose Police Station. More than 700 people had gathered there by Saturday morning, unsure when or if it would be safe to go home.
They came, for the most part, from the same impoverished corners of South African society as their attackers—maids and gardeners; plumbers, construction workers, and the unemployed—people to whom the country’s promises of economic opportunity had been largely underwhelming.“There are more jobs here, but this isn’t a good place to live,” says Ethan Daniels, a Zimbabwean, as he whiled away a long autumn afternoon at the camp Saturday playing card games with other refugees. “If the politics in my country change, I’ll go back tomorrow.”It was a refrain shared by many who hailed from countries stretching from Nigeria to Pakistan. This was not a place to make a life, they said. But then again, neither was home.The morning after Islam and Miah’s shop was looted, they were sweeping broken glass from the storefront when a man walked by with a warning.“We’re not done here,” he said. “We’re coming back tonight.”Sure enough, darkness had no sooner fallen Friday evening than a mob had once again pried its way inside the shop. But this time, the police came quickly, and the attackers fled. The Bangladeshis arrived soon after, accompanied by a group of Nigerians who run the auto spares shop next door. The Nigerians quickly mobilized a truck, and working together, the men quietly loaded up the remaining contents of the store.When it was empty, they replaced the metal grate over the storefront and locked it for the last time.“Leave the lights on,” Islam commanded as they prepared to drive away from the wreckage, “so they know this time there’s nothing left to take.”