Letter from Africa: Soweto still burning

Image source, AP

In our series of letters from African journalists, Zimbabwean film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo looks at the latest wave of xenophobic violence to hit South Africa.

There is a romanticism attached to some of southern Africa's most famous townships, time and history have lent them a golden sheen in the chapters of our liberation struggles.

After all, these townships gave birth to resistance and incredible leadership and, over the years, oppressive regimes had trained the full might of their weaponry on them.

And so townships matter in the collective memory.

You may be eating goat head in the bars of Namibia's Katutura Township, as I once did, and be blissfully unaware that in the local Herero language the name means "The place where people do not want to live" - after South Africa's colonial administration shunted people out to make way for white homes in the middle of the last century.

Or you could be a tourist in the South Western Townships of Johannesburg wandering the streets in search of anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela's first home and have a vague feeling that the people changed this unimaginative geographical name into Soweto - that blood and guts were spilled in its defence and that singers were inspired to write tunes like "Fire in Soweto" in the seismic clash to end apartheid.

But a quick glance at Soweto's 21st century headlines tells us that none of that illustrious history matters - the fires still burn and the scourge of xenophobia - which claimed 62 lives in 2008 - is back, while the police have been replacing tourists in South Africa's famous township with their own tense and armed presence.

What is more, the old white enemy is nowhere in sight in Soweto - which encompasses many parts, some historical some middle class and some very poor - as dark people target each other.

Reports suggest that the death of 14-year-old Mthetheleli Siphiwe Mahori at the hands of a foreign shopkeeper, who was allegedly being robbed, prompted widespread looting and violence.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
People began stripping groceries from shops in Soweto
Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The looting of foreign-owned shops spread to other townships like this one in Kagiso west of Johannesburg

The word foreigner is applied to Somalis, Malawians, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and a clutch of other nationalities who had made their homes and, more importantly, their businesses in the townships.

By midday last Thursday, the police were urging the public "not to take the law into their own hands" and said that 81 shops had been looted.

The shops, it must be remembered, are informal conversions like shipping containers or garages, which form part of the kiosk economy of any township.

Pictures show crowds emptying shops of maize-meal, soft drinks and other groceries being carted away.

There are suggestions that even light bulbs and some shop gates disappeared with the brutal efficiency of soldier ants on the march.

By the time the attacks on foreign-owned stores had calmed down, 120 shops had been looted and the police had made 178 arrests, among them many school children.

Rainbow nation?

The police were at pains not to mention the "x" word.

The police chief in South Africa's economic heartland of Gauteng, Joel Mothiba, claimed that what was taking place in Soweto was "criminal and not xenophobic" - despite the overwhelming numbers of non-South Africans fleeing their shops and seeking police protection from the attackers.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation disagreed with him and said: "We consider these attacks to be xenophobic and condemn them as such. We urge all community leaders to rally residents around the ideals upon which our constitution… is founded - there should be a fundamental respect for human life and property without discrimination."

The word xenophobia seems to shame the politicians into the realisation that the world recognises South Africa's rampant intolerance of others, despite the nation's subtitle of "rainbow nation".

Image source, farai sevenzo
Image caption,
Foreigners run small businesses across South Africa, like this barbers in Cape Town

Africa's most liberal constitution, born after apartheid, has nothing to do with the simmering hate in ordinary people's heads. It is a hate over their lot in life, the slowness of economic transformation, the daily struggle to survive.

In my recent travels to this stunning country, the presence of other Africans is obvious. From the Congolese barbers and Tanzanian taxi drivers to the Zambian masseuse and Zimbabwean waiters - all perceived by the townships' poor to be stealing their jobs. Those with such entrepreneurial flair will keep a low profile.

A spokesman for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), Patrick Craven, tried to give a history lesson to the angry mobs: "If we see foreigners as scapegoats we will be on a slippery slope… We must never forget that many of those who risked their lives in our liberation struggle were migrant workers from all over the world."

But the crowds on the township streets forcefully taking what they have not paid for are far removed from the ideals of that struggle; theirs is the basic politics of the stomach, exacerbated by the weight of apartheid's denial of opportunity and education.

The fires may be doused in Soweto for now, but South Africa's 2015 leadership must protect all who work and live in these townships which only the past seems to hold holy.

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