The agonising wait as the assault starts
It is Tuesday in Pretoria West, and after some of the city’s buildings are torched and about 30 foreign-owned shops looted, a group calling itself the Mamelodi Concerned Residents’ Association announces it will lead a march against undocumented immigrants on Friday and hand over a memorandum to government.
At 11.00 that morning, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba speaks from Cape Town after the group’s antiimmigrant march is approved by the Tshwane metro police.
“When people say there are too many foreigners in the country, they mean there are too many Africans. That is the problem ... We cannot accept that narrative without criticising it,” Gigaba says.
Responding to claims from Nigeria’s government that 116 of its citizens were killed in South Africa in the past two years, Gigaba asks: “Should we start counting how many South Africans have died in South Africa at the hands of Nigerian nationals?” This does not help. Early that afternoon, Pretoria’s “Somaliland”, an area across the road from Marabastad named for the number of Somali nationals resident there, is deserted, save for a few brave shop owners.
The atmosphere is as miserable as the weather. A girl of about eight in an orange hijab sits on the steps of a small shop. Around the corner, a number of mostly black BMWs are parked outside a large house where men stand watch, aware of strangers on their turf.
“Put your phone down, DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE HERE!” – these are the orders of ANC youth league regional secretary Ratshi Mashamba to City Press photographer Leon Sadiki, whose phone is ringing while on a tour of the neighbourhood.
“They will think you are communicating with police and will want to attack us.”
Pretoria West Police Station is a stone’s throw away. The area consists mainly of old council houses, many of which were auctioned and bought by foreign nationals.
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“Many of the houses were legitimately purchased. South Africans in the area do not seem to accept that there are legal purchases ... Other houses were hijacked. People working in town who cannot afford much rent live there and pay rent to the hijackers.
“In some legally purchased houses, illegal activities of drug-dealing and trafficking are happening. Sometimes the landlords don’t know that tenants are doing illegal things. At other times they keep quiet and accept their money at the end of the month,” Mashamba says.
Pule Mmutlana, who heads the group property management department for the City of Tshwane, says the city cannot say how many houses are still council owned and how many have been hijacked, foreignowned or legitimately sold.
Mashamba says many young girls from nearby townships have been taken to houses used as brothels, and residents have had enough. While it is easy to criticise those planning Friday’s protest, one cannot dispute the experiences of those who have lost young girls to illegal activities.
Fast-forward to 9.30am on Friday, and protesters arrive in numbers at the Marabastad bus depot. The muddy lot is teeming with armoured police vehicles and water tanks, and the blue lights keep coming.
Undeterred, protesters arrive in taxis and on foot, some brandishing axes, spears and sticks.
“The police are here to protect foreigners who are here illegally and sell drugs. These people must go home,” says one angry protester, his face covered.
Down the road outside Bismillah Chicken, the Somalis have closed shop and gathered.
“We do not see much police presence and we have been told protesters are on the way to attack us. People want to fight back, but the community has talked; we are not going to attack anyone,” says community leader Ahmed Awil.
Two hours later, protesters arrive across the road and police stand between them and the Somalis, who wield pangas and sticks.
A police helicopter hovers above the two groups, who taunt each other. Moments later, a police water tank starts spraying both sides and people scatter.
Later that afternoon, Ahmed Cabdulaal (36) takes City Press to a rundown house which doubles as a school. A large storage room is filled with fridges and stock from more than 30 Somali shops around Pretoria West and Atteridgeville.
“You see, we do not sell anything bad, not even cigarettes or alcohol,” says the father of three pointing to cooldrinks, maize, cleaning products and other goods which fill the space.
“My three children have left for Johannesburg with their mother. She phones me constantly, wanting to know if I am alive. I didn’t tell them why they must go, I just said that they are going to visit. We do not want to upset them. We took the stock, so there is nothing to attack. Now there are only human beings left to attack. I do not sleep at night,” he says.
On Saturday morning, the spokesperson for the Mamelodi Concerned Residents’ group, Makgoka Lekganyane, says the march “went well”.
“We do not associate ourselves with others [protesters] that went and caused chaos elsewhere. The march has been misunderstood. We are against xenophobia. This was about calling for better border control and [calling on] the department of labour to protect South Africans.
“The blame here must not be with brothers and sisters from other countries. No one should be attacking them. We need to hold our institutions, like home affairs and the labour department, accountable. We must blame them for the troubles we have.”